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“The assumption that a black man suspected of a robbery is dangerous enough to be shot is the heart of the issue. The inability of the black community to trust that police offers will not see them as immediate threats and act accordingly is the heart of the injustice involved.”

For proof that ordination does not confer upon the priest a shiny, new ontological status, you need look no further than the clergy group pages on Facebook. Over the past hours I’ve had more than a few occasions to do a double-take of the nasty comments and unsubtle racism posted by clergy (as in, vicars of Jesus) about the violence last night in Ferguson.

One Reverend cited recent black-on-black shootings in Chicago and followed with a Rudy-worthy, self-pitying lament:

‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face.’ 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism.

Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

What’s all too evident on clergy pages is seen in larger surveys and polls. Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officer who killed a black boy while black Americans identify with the boy who was shot 6 times by a white police officer from a nearly all-white police precinct for a crime(s) for which white kids rarely even get hassled.

Whenever a story like Michael Brown’s hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                   “represents a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of Ferguson and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

Far be it from me to lecture my fellow clergy, but, as McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.

 

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

Untitled44There’s no better time than the Advent season of ‘holy anticipation’ to reflect on what I think is the most important question for Christians to ponder:

Why does God takes flesh in the first place?

Does God become incarnate in Jesus in order to die upon the cross; so that, we can be saved from our sins?

Is Christmas merely instrumental? Is the Incarnation just the means by which humanity pays the sin-debt owed to God, satisfying God’s wrath against us in the process?

Or is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas itself salvific in some way?  Is humanity in some measure saved simply by God assuming our humanity?

And what do we mean by ‘salvation?’

For all you theology nerds, church geeks and preachers desperate for sermon ideas, I invite you to join me this Advent in reading and reflecting upon the Church Father Athanasius’ short essay On the Incarnation.

A bishop in the early 4th century and a leader against the Arian heretics (those who did not believe that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ) at the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation is one of the very first texts of developed Christian theology.

Plus, its short. 40 pages.

Even better, it’s free. Right here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

Print it out and after you’ve stuffed your face like the pilgrims of yore, get to reading.

Starting the week of 12/1 we’ll go at a 10-15 page pace a week.

Each week of Advent I’ll post my thoughts on what we’ve read, the context behind it and why it matters for thinking about and following Christ today.

Plus, each week I’ll post a podcast conversation about On the Incarnation between me and some special guests:

061213soulenDr. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary

Michael Harden, a Rene Girard scholar, author of The Jesus Driven Life and Executive Director of Preaching Peace

Bobby Ray Hurd, House Church Planter at Simple Church and the smartest dude I ‘know’ on the interwebs.

So read, listen, and send me a thought or question via email or the Speakpipe on the screen.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-Franzen

To wet your whistle, here’s this money quote from Athanasius:

“Because the true story of the world has been lost in the seemingly endless epic of sin, Christ must retell- in the entire motion and content of his life, lived both toward the Father and for his fellows- the tale from the beginning.

The Logos became flesh in order to reestablish the original pattern after which the human form was crafted in the beginning, and to impress upon creation the beauty of the divine image.”

Want to know just how important those two sentences are for making sense of Christmas, Good Friday, the teachings of Christ and our hands-on embodiment of them for others?

Read.

Listen.

Ask.

12.1

Do it.

 

The Christian blogosphere has been all atwitter lately over the National Cathedral’s welcome of an Islamic prayer service into their sacred space. Living here in DC as I do, I can say that Muslims praying in the cathedral will be neither the first non-Christian activity on the cathedral’s schedule nor will it be as a-religious as much of the silliness which transpires there (seriously, I was once forced to take a ‘Laughter Yoga’ class there).

True to form, my mentor and partner-in-crime, Dennis Perry, was well-ahead of the curve in showing Christian hospitality to our Muslim neighbors when their mosque was under renovation. Fidelity to Jesus, Dennis points out, involves much more than tribal allegiance to him. It requires us to embody his life and ministry, and when it comes how we should offer hospitality to our despised, feared neighbors Jesus even gives us a handy-dandy, black-and-white parable to abide: the Good Samaritan.

Our church welcomed our Muslim neighbors 4 years ago. It was not without controversy. Many church members got angry. Others left. Only one ever actually came to me to tell me they were upset.

In the end, in a denomination whose highest value is most often making members happy, we’re a stronger congregation for welcoming the stranger.

Here’s the sermon I wrote 4 years ago, the Sunday after the Friday we first welcomed our local mosque into our sacred multipurpose room. I preached that Sunday while Dennis sat in the middle of a firing line of questions between services.

As luck would have it, it’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary text.

Also, just for shits and giggle, here’s a bit the Daily Show did about our hospitality.

The Form of God’s Shalom – Matthew 25

A few years ago, before she graduated, I went with my wife, Ali, to a law school party. I hate parties. I avoid them. I go only begrudgingly and when I’m in them I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a minister- a marine biologist, say, or an architect. Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks like saying you’re a minister, and nothing provokes unwanted conversations like saying you’re a minister.

So, there I was at this party full of wannabe lawyers, gnawing like a beaver on celery sticks, desperately trying to keep conversation to superficial things when this Urban-Outfitted guy asked me what I did for a living. And because my wife was nearby I told him the truth.

Sure enough, the first thing he did was discretely move his wine glass behind his back. Then he copped an elitist air and said:

‘Well, I’m not religious, of course, but I do try to live a good life and help people when I can. Isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about?’

And I thought: ‘Wow, that’s really deep. Is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? I should write that down. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.’

Today’s scripture text from Matthew 25 seems like the perfect example of such do-good moralism.

One of the most obvious features of this judgment scene is what’s missing from it. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, there’s no mention of a confession of faith. There’s no mention of justification. Nothing is said here about forgiveness of sins or grace.

There’s nothing here about what we say or believe about Jesus. Many conclude from this text then that our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith are all incidental when compared to our deeds, that this parable shows us that what really matters is what we do, that one day we will be judged not on the strength or sincerity of our faith but on the presence of our good deeds to others.

The only problem with such an interpretation is that its an interpretation that doesn’t require Jesus; in fact, you can forget Jesus is the one telling the parable.

The suggestion that ‘doing good to others is really what it’s all about’ is hardly a novel concept. It’s not specifically Christian or even particularly religious.

There has to be more going on here.

Jesus and the disciples have just left the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus preached a series of woes against the faithless city. It was while they were there that the disciples couldn’t help but marvel over the impressive architecture of Herod’s temple mount.

And hearing their amazement, Jesus responds by predicting the complete destruction of every building they see, stone for stone.

Then Jesus leads them up to the Mt of Olives. When they get there, the disciples ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5). Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’ That this is the setting for today’s scripture is key to understanding Jesus’ parable.

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read this parable rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture.

Every year I spend the first three weeks of our confirmation program drilling into the confirmands’ heads that harmony was God’s intention from the very beginning. Harmony with creation, with one another, with Father, Son and Spirit.

Sometimes we spend so much time praising God for dying for our sins we forget that Sin was not in the first draft of God’s story. We forget that harmony was God’s original design, and we forget that harmony is God’s promise for a

New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. By telling this parable here the Shepherd is passing his vocation on to his sheep. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

You see-

The point of this parable is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se. The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point of this parable is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged. The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to his way of life which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep are saved not because of their good deeds. The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to live the life that redeems the world. The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about? The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation came to me, quite upset, and told me they couldn’t understand why we would allow for an Islamic congregation to hold their Friday Jummah prayer services here in our building.

‘How can we ask our youth to give their lives to Christ when we’re condoning the practice of another religion in our fellowship hall?’

It was an honest question. I don’t doubt the sincerity of it, and it was just one of many such questions I’ve received in the last few weeks.

Implicit in the question is the suggestion that by welcoming the Islamic congregation we are watering down our beliefs in Jesus when in fact I think it’s the opposite.

I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I believe he’s the savior of the world. And because I believe that, I believe his way of life is the form of God’s shalom. And there is no better description of Jesus’ life than as the One who welcomes the stranger, love his enemies, cares for the outcast, heals the sick, and brings good news to the captives.

Do I believe the worlds’ religions are all just different paths to the same destination? No.

Do I believe Islam rightly understands the God of Abraham? No.

Do I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Yes.

But when we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

That we would welcome Muslim strangers into our sacred space with no strings attached is not a reduction of what we believe about Jesus (or a betrayal); it is, I think, the fullest possible expression of what we believe about Jesus.

This isn’t just a relevant question for our congregation. As globalism and secularism spread, the question for the Church in the future is: how do we as Christians engage the stranger?

We do so as Christ, who regarded the stranger as neither darkness nor danger.

Today’s scripture is Jesus‘ final teaching moment before the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- where Jesus sends out the apostles to make disciples of all nations. What that means, I think, is that the necessary condition for evangelism, the necessary condition for sharing our faith, is the presence of a People who embody the life of the One whom we wish to share with others.

Fundamentally, you can’t share a message about the One who welcomed strangers and loved enemies and forgave sin and conquered the power of Death in a hostile, suspicious or fearful way.

The manner in which we share our faith has to match the content of our message. Otherwise we’re practicing an ideology and not the ministry of Jesus.

Look-

There are irreconcilable differences with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the God of Abraham. Secular culture tries to tell us that those differences don’t really matter. Extremists try to tell us that those differences are worth killing over.

I believe what the Church has to offer the world right now is a gift we’ve already been given by Jesus. What we have to offer the world is a ministry that welcomes the stranger. What we have to offer the world is a community where there is no danger in the Other’s difference because welcome of the stranger is an attribute of God’s own life.

Let me make it plain:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

We do this because this is the form of God’s shalom. This is the labor Christ has given us. I recognize such labor at times can be painful, uncomfortable and difficult. But ask any mother- labor pains always come before new life.

IMG_2133Today is World Toilet Day, a globally recognized occasion to direct the attention of pampered, fat-a#$#@ like you and me to the lack of sanitation in the developing world.

Not only is not having a pot to p@## in a lack of dignity even America’s poorest can’t imagine, lack of sanitation brings with it systemic health and socio-economic effects.

World Toilet Day has been celebrated by the UN, NGO’s and the philanthropic community since 2001 with a campaign that- I’m quoting here- ‘mixes humor with serious facts to help people resonate with a problem most otherwise ignore.’

Ignore.

Because from a fundraiser’s perspective, toilets aren’t as sexy as a kid with flies in his eyes or buying a playground for him.

And from a funder’s perspective toilets are just, well, ICK.

I know today, November 19, is World Toilet Day.

I’m just surprised- cr!% in my pants shocked- that UMCOR knows its World Toilet Day.

That’s UMCOR as in United Methodist Committee on Relief, the social service arm of the United Methodist Church, the mainoldline denomination in which I toil for love of Jesus.

For the past 30 months, I, and many of my congregants, have literally worked like c@#$ to raise the money and provide much of the hands-on labor to install one complete sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama, Guatemala.

We did so primarily because the leaders of the community themselves identified sanitation as the number one transformative step we could help them take towards an empowered future.

We did so also because 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to sanitation.

Not only does that lead to a 9/11 everyday of bacteria-related fatalities, it’s the main obstacle to girls staying in school once they hit puberty (think about it).

Probably, you DO have to think about it because YOU DON’T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT TAKING A S#$% any day much less everyday.

Toilets are something we take for granted which means it’s not easy to raise money or awareness about someone else’s need for them.

Not to mention a giant Victorian taboo about talking about s#$% stands in the way.

Over the past 2 years we’ve raised over $100,000 off-budget. We’ve also sent more volunteers to help install the sanitation system than most Methodist churches have in worship on a Sunday.

We did so through…drumroll…’mixing humor with serious facts.’

A series of short videos of a guy in a collar (me~ fully clothed) on or near one of my church’s 37(!!) toilets. In each video I tried to playfully point out that getting upset about taboos like talking about doodie in church is pretty unJesusy when he died naked and most of the people he claims to prefer literally live in, play in and eat food washed in doodie every day.

I was told by the denominational powers-that-be that the word ‘toilet’ is inappropriate in church and in church communications. If you want more of that story please call (703) 768-1114.

Truth be told, the broohaha probably helped us raise more money and I was fine with that until I got this email last week from UMCOR, one of the agencies of the denominational powers-that-be.

Telling me today is World Toilet Day and asking me- I s@#$ you not- to learn more by watching a video.

Of a church employee (a pastor?).

At a toilet.

Talking about the importance of toilets.

Even if we think it’s impolite to talk about.

Toilets.

I don’t think I’m being vain by pointing out the similarities (i.e., stealing) in approach. This UMCOR video is the Gary Busey to my Nick Nolte, the Rutger Hauer to my Anthony Hopkins, or even if it’s the reverse the resemblance is there.

I like to think of myself as a trend-setter, but even I can’t make ‘toilet’ an appropriate word in church if it truly is/was a vulgar, ‘grievous’ offense. Anyways, all the crap was worth it because come January, when our mission team arrives, the project will be complete and we’ll be just an inch closer to new creation.

Since it’s World Toilet Day, why not give to Aldersgate’s Guatemala Toilet Project here. Every wee little bit helps, so do you doodie.

And to celebrate Word Toilet Day, here’s a never-published and not-so-amazing (I was told to delete all the old ones) video my kid did for the project in ’13.

 

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In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on Bentham’s image of the panopticon as the ideal prison. Prisoners constantly under the gaze of a lone guard in a central tower, Foucault argued, is an image of pure- and ultimately degrading-power and, for that reason, worse than torture.
For Sunday’s sermon I tried to apply Foucault’s argument to the 3rd servant’s confession ‘I know you’re a harsh Master’ in Matthew 25. I did so by way of Bette Midler.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or in iTunes here. I broke the mic Sunday so you’re going to have to turn it up!
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     I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.

And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.

God, that is.

 

I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’  I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.

I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.

For a long time, I didn’t know Him.

Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’

I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.

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I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.

We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.

We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.

I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’

In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.

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The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.

I remember-

When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’

(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.

And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’

And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’

So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano  grandma had apparently failed to whack.

But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.

I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.

I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.

1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.

1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’

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But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.

God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.

1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.

This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us,

God is watching us from a distance.

Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.

God is watching us from a distance.

1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.

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Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.

In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.

Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.

Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’

At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’

Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:

‘God is watching you.

God is watching you.

God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’

Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.

VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.

So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’

Middle school- me hated it too.

Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.

Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.

Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.

No. Secret. Is. Hid.

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I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.

I mean-

The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.

I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.

That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

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One winter day there they were.

Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.

In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’

But no.

Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’

1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.

No, I heard her.

Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.

And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.

And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.

And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’

Which…made her cry.

That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.

In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.

But no.

Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.

From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.

Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.

Like a guard in a prison tower.

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‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.

When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.

‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’

Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.

You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.

He is always watching us.

Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.

Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.

Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.

Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?

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When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.

My takeaway in 1990?

That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.

It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.

Here’s the thing, here’s everything-

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Who you think you are.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.

If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.

If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.

If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.

If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.

If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.

You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.

You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.

And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Conversely, or consequently:

You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.

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I didn’t always know Him.

In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.

But I didn’t.

And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.

That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.

For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.

I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.

I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.

Suffice it to say:

The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.

And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.

 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

quote-well-the-themes-for-me-were-and-remain-sex-and-love-and-grief-and-death-the-things-that-make-us-thomas-lynch-116137I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside in the PICU.

Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me.

My boys have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do.

The resurrection proclamation requires the dismal trade to precede it, make sense of it. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy- grace- as in unwarranted gift- of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is frageelay.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

Theologian Kendall Soulen was our guest this week for Pub Theology.

Kendall is the author of The God of Israel and Christian Theology and The Divine Names(s) and the Holy Trinity. He teaches theology at Wesley Theological Seminary here in DC. Most importantly, he’s a Karl Barth fanboy too.

A special thank to Andreas Barrett who hosted this installment at his home with his exceptional home-brew.

Mark your calendars. Next installment is December 11 with Rabbi Brett Isserow: ‘Putting the מָשִׁיחַ Back in X’mas.’

Over 30 people came out to talk with Kendall. After beginning with a gloria toast to the Holy Trinity, I asked Kendall to answer the first question he asks his students on their midterm: Evaluate the following statement. Faith is personal; it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere.’

You can listen to it all here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes here.

If you’re receiving this by email, you’ll probably need to click over to the blog to listen.

Is Belief Wishful Thinking?

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

15. What do we mean by faith?

Faith is primarily imitation of the Faithful One, Jesus Christ, so by faith we mean obedience, loyalty, belief, trust and sharing in God’s self-knowledge.

While faith refers to all these characteristics and is always more than mere belief, it also means we take a particular belief to be true. If someone held a belief ‘on faith’ but showed complete indifference to any evidence for or against that belief, we would not think that person had faith just as the opposite is true too. If someone of faith is completely preoccupied with reasons for or against their belief, then it’s not clear that person of faith really has faith.

Of course faith is more than judging a proposition to be true, but it is at least thinking it true.

Christian faith is at least belief that there is no conclusive argument to disprove Christian belief. Faith in the resurrection, for example, includes the belief that no evidence can be proffered to disprove the ressurection.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” 

– Hebrews 11.1

16. Must we have faith to be a Christian?

Yes.

Not necessarily because faith is a kind of litmus test distinguishing Christian from pagan but because faith isn’t simply the means by which we accept the Christian story.

Faith is itself a key element of the Christian story.

Faith is necessary to be a Christian because one of the beliefs Christians take ‘on faith’ is faith itself, the ability of faith to move mountains and bring about things which do not exist: the faith of Abraham to journey towards an unknown land, the faith of Israel to abide in the wilderness, the faith of Mary to bear shame and messiah, the faithfulness of Jesus unto the Cross.

“As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” - Romans 4.7

17. Is belief wishful thinking?

Of course.

Then, most of our opinions, to one degree or another, are wishful thinking.

Christian belief, like most beliefs, is wishful thinking not in the sense that we force ourselves- delude ourselves- to think a certain way but in that we decide to think according to Christian belief.

A Christian who believes the creed to be true decides to live as if it’s true while someone who doesn’t believe the creed is true wills to live according to a different creed.

Christian belief is wishful thinking just as my love for my spouse is wishful thinking; that is, I will to love my wife. The only difference is that with my wife I seldom need to think too hard about willing my love while with God I often need to will such love.

One could say that Christian belief is wishful thinking because the Christian life is learning to love God such that willing love is no longer conscious or necessary.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” – Romans 7.15

lightstock_35237_small_user_274151710. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2For all of November I plan to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. Found in Matthew 25.14-30, the parable is both juicy enough and sufficiently cryptic for multiple takes and interpretations.

This Sunday I assumed the point of view of a servant consigned to the outer darkness where, Jesus says, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

You can listen to the sermon below or in the widget in the sidebar. You can download it in iTunes here.

Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

You can call me #3. No, I was never a Next Generation fan, why?

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

     With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is.

Instead it’s just creepy quiet.

And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. I mean, sure, Ted Cruz is here; he keeps yammering about repealing the incarnation.

But other than him and Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

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So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that. And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No. Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy. Pretty harsh, right? That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

     I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could.

That’s the point of the story, right?

A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch. No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker. Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

 

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What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

     The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.  About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

 

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

     Why would I think he was talking about money?

As though my Master was some sort of economist.

He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious?

     The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

     And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

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I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

     Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world.

That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

     Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that.

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

 

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In the story, the master says to his servant:

     “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.” 

     But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:

“After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me?

After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life.

And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?!

My Kingdom isn’t just good news; its responsibility.

You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

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You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man. I’m not a risk-taker, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too. Someday.

 

 

 

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.

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As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?

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What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

I hear it all the time, mostly at parties and social gatherings where I’m more likely to run into non-Christians. Often I end up on the receiving end of it at funerals, hearing someone’s grief channeled through anger:

‘I don’t need someone else to connect me to God.’

‘I don’t need a church to tell me how to live my life.’

‘No,’ I normally qualify, ‘you don’t someone like me necessarily. But you need someone.’

Moral absolutes get a bad rap in the antinomian landscape we’d rather call postmodern.

As Americans, we instinctually believe it to be our birth right to decide what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. To have an organized religion tell us what is right and wrong- and train us into those beliefs- strikes us as deeply unAmerican; never mind the fact that the organized religion we call America is the institution who indoctrinated us into the belief that we should decide right and wrong on our own.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas repeatedly echoes: rp_faith4.jpg

“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story.”

The consequence of living in a nation where you’re indoctrinated into believing that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story is that you’re more likely than not to attend a church that’s gun shy about indoctrinating you into a counter story.

And so in most contemporary churches, the mood is more often one of comfort than challenge.

When it comes to ethics, the focus in churches is on conversation rather than catechesis. The extent to which churches are shaped by the belief that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story can be seen in the cliches we use to describe churches as moral communities.

We want churches, we say, that ‘live into the questions’ (rather than learn the wisdom of the saints).

We prefer churches where our youth will be able to ‘make up their minds for themselves’ (even though we’ve not trained them into having minds worth making up).

Faith, we say in progressive churches, is about ‘exploring the question’ while in conservative churches we say similarly that faith is about ‘making a decision for yourself Christ.’

The problem with not wanting the Church to indoctrinate you in to its answers of right and wrong is that it ignores the fact that right and wrong conduct is grounded in the kind of people we are, the traits of character we have.

What our American religious ethos obscures is that morality- ethics- is not                        what we do or decide.

It is who we are.

People of virtue, people with good character, moral people are those who tend to do the right thing and to do it rather easily or without effort or agony; to do it naturally.

Bad people, however, habitually do the wrong thing and the worst without even agonizing about it because they no longer have the character sufficient to discern or choose the good.

This is auspicious news, for any parent knows we are not born with the particular traits or character we come to possess. Virtuous traits of character have to be acquired or “learned.”

The moral life is learned, an apprenticed art.

What the Church calls ‘catechesis.’

We become the kind of people we are through only through other people- through practice and training under other people. As Thomas Aquinas taught, we acquire habits by repeatedly acting in particular ways until the attitudes and dispositions related to the act become our own, become reflexive. According to Aquinas, only people with the proper training and mentoring, only people shaped by appropriate traditions and stories, are likely to do the right thing.

Exhibit A: My friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz. images-1

Brian, a lawyer, has written a book, One Big Setup, in which he tells his story advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Brian’s decision to take the pro bono, career-harming death penalty case was, he writes, reflexive.

Why?

Brian writes that he grew up Catholic in Jersey, going to Mass every week; as a result; he grew up just believing- knowing- that the death penalty was wrong.

Why?

Because that’s what his priests and his Church drilled into him. That, and the fact that you’re supposed to stick up for the poor.

And so, when it came to make a decision about advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian writes that it wasn’t really a decision at all. It was something more like a reflexive yes.

A habitually-conditioned response.

So much so that when Brian looks back with the benefit of hindsight, he’ll honestly say that if he had to ‘choose’ all over again he’d probably decline the case.

To show that this isn’t just an abstract theological excursion, that there’s something at stake in the Church catechizing Christians into the moral life, that there’s something at stake in the Church failing to do so…

brownalfredExhibit B: The Texas Appeals Court just overturned Alfred Dwayne Brown’s death sentence.

(You can read about it here)

The face-saving State will now try to request a new trial for which it now has no evidential basis.

Thanks to Brian.

And the many, many years and sacrifice and tears he gave to Alfred.

So the next time some couple wanting to get married or baptize their baby tells me they want their ‘children to decide for themselves when they grow up’ I’ll tell them about Brian and tell them the stake are much too high to let them let their children decide for themselves.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

12. Is the Bible our only authority? 

Of course not.

Jesus Christ, the fullness of God made flesh, who reigns the Earth from the right hand of the Father, is our sole authority.

Jesus is Lord not the Bible nor our imperfect interpretation of it.

The Bible is our primary witness to Christ, but even the Bible’s witness is mediated to us by the witness of the saints and our own experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world- the gift of the world itself speaks to the sheer gratuity of God.

And because all truth is God’s truth, our reason and apprehension of the created world elaborate upon (and sometimes correct) the witness to God we find in the Bible.

‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

– Acts 2.36

13. Are the Bible’s words about God accurate?

Not inherently, no.

The words of scripture are human words, the same words we use to describe ordinary objects like bears, coffee and computer keys. The words themselves possess no inherent capacity to speak of God.

The fullness and meaning of the Word, Jesus Christ, cannot be mined by any number of human words; therefore, scripture cannot be understood as a fixed archive of truths about God as though faithful description of God is reducible to regurgitation of scripture.

Indeed, as the creed’s reliance on the term ‘substance’ makes clear, faithful witness to God may require words that go beyond the language of scripture.

Within the language of scripture itself, the words do not all testify to God in the same way. As St Thomas notes, words like ‘rock’ or a ‘warrior’ can describe God only metaphorically while words like ‘good’ and ‘love’ can be taken literally if analogously.

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” – John 21.25

14. Do Christians who read scripture grasp God better than non-Christians who do not read scripture?

Never.

Sorry.

God is transcendent, the reason there is something instead of nothing, Being itself not a being within the universe. Scripture does not render God any less transcendent nor does scripture rein God in to the universe of knowable objects.

So scripture does not provide us with a schema by which the transcendent God becomes comprehensible.

Because God, by definition, remains unknowable to creatures- known only insofar as he makes himself known- there is no ground on which Christians can claim to grasp God’s essence any better than non-Christians.

Rather, what makes Christians different from non-Christians is that Christians know how, apart from grace, nothing they confess of God can be true, and that even where Christians succeed, by grace, in confessing the truth about God they can never know how it is true.

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 7.21