Archives For Stanley Hauerwas

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Linvale Methodist Episcopal Church - Linvale

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

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She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

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    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

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     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.

Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.

The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

 

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Dear Tyler and Parker,

 

In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.

Sorry.

By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.

     ‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’ is still another choice.

 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

     Therefore, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.

They make you odd.

By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.

Tyler, Parker-

I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.

True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.

     By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.

You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts and your habits too) shaped by Christ.

How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself?

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Tyler, Parker-

I realize telling you you don’t have minds worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

When engaged couples tell me they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions.

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves.

Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction.

A lie.

     It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.

It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing your parents go against the grain of the culture.

     It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

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Tyler and Parker-

You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you.

After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?

Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.

When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

     Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out.

It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.

     For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

     As you’ll learn in confirmation Tyler and Parker, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts.

What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come.

Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Tyler and Parker-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.

Nothing could be further off the mark.

Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos- the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.

Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.

By Torah Paul means Scripture.

By Scripture Paul means Revelation.

And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.

     Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.

     All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

     Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’ 

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     Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:

The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

     And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

     It’s about following after Jesus.

     It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

     Immerse.

     Tyler, Parker-

     What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:

     That the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor.

     The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

     If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been.

 

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’

Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

 

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross.

But the way of the Cross is the path we commit you to today.

 

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

 

On the other hand, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

 

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

Sincerely,

Jason

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IMG_4541This is from my friend Teer Hardy.

Check out his blog here.

Happy belated 4th of July!  Americans love to celebrate. I am no different.  Holidays are a great opportunity to be thankful, visit family, take a day or two off from work, and grill/smoke some meat on your assortment of Weber products.  The 4th of July is no different. In fact, I would venture to say that the celebrating is a little more intense.  From cookouts and parades to pyrotechnic shows with illegal fireworks from North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Americans tend to be a bit more extreme with their 4th of July celebrations.  And you can’t really blame us right?

Fireworks and cheap watered down beer goes hand in hand (or in just one hand if you blow one off with a firework mortar).

The 4th of July is a time to celebrate our identity as Americans.  We are blessed to live in the land of the free because of the brave.  Our kids receive top notch educations, the vast majority of us enjoy three  squares a day and a roof over our heads, and we can worship any god that we want to without fear of government persecution.  It’s a sweet deal..

In February my son was baptized.

My wife and I were able to pour water over his head as he received a new identity.

This identity supersedes any national allegiance or pride that we or society might will pass onto him as he grows up.  Baptism takes us and pulls us into a new identity where Christ is the focal point and everything is secondary.

A friend of mine from college posted a picture on Facebook Friday afternoon from a 4th of July parade.  From the pictures I gathered that it was your typical smalltown parade, marshalled by the mayor, Boy  Scouts carrying American flags, and civic organizations throwing candy to the crowd.  One float though made me scratch my head.  The side of the float read, “JesUSAves”.  At first I scratched my head and thought, “well that’s a boring float”.  But then it got to thinking that the “JesUSAves” float is not only a dangerous mixing of our American pride and Christian identity, to the point where the latter becomes subservient to the former, but when Christianity takes on the form of nationalism a dangerous slippery slope begins to emerge.

Now I am all for national pride.  I am proud and privileged to live where  I do.  And I am proud and grateful to the people who have made that possible for me.

But I wonder if our American-Christian identity has begun to focus more on the American part, to the point that the American-Christian identity has little in common with the Jesus that put the Christ in Christian.

Baptism, confirmation, and professions of faith set Christians apart from the world.  These acts enable us to call one another brother and sister with people from around the world, and not just within our Main Street churches.  I am all for national pride.  We should wave the red, white, and blue proudly.  The national anthem is something that should still be sung at baseball games, and kids should still say the Pledge of Allegiance (they still do that right?).   BUT none of this should take priority or dilute our identity as Christians.

After all, remember that it was a parade into Jerusalem where Jesus called out the political and religious establishment to the point that the nationalism he was challenging killed him.

 

  lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517   …and to the Way for which his Cross stands…’    

I remember my first day at my first church:

My secretary informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

     ‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’ 

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing my self-destruction.

Independence Day Weekend is a time when a lot of churchgoers expect their pastors to preach about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things.

     But, in my denomination at least, the bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye.

The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord.

The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world from heaven.

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives.

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel.

And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative too.

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not.

Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not.

Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not.

Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord.

As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world.

     Independence Day is as good a time as any for Christians to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports.

We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God.

Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead.

Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country.

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom.

     And even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ.

That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’

     Through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

     That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

    That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

As baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

     I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

    (And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

     I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

     (And very often, it isn’t.)

     I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

     (And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness.

And service.

And sacrificial love.

 

 

Church-RainbowAs I mentioned in previous posts, Last week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, it’s meant to be the rejoinder to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

arnoldbook‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book; that is, Hamilton’s book doesn’t take a sufficiently strong stand ‘for the bible’ and against ‘the gay agenda.’

The freebie book arrived at a time when some, like Adam Hamilton, in my United Methodist tradition are proposing a third ‘way forward’ through the stalemate over homosexuality and others are openly advocating for a conservative schism from the United Methodist 843504001902Church.

‘Strategic disunity’ is the euphemism I’ve seen used by those who don’t want to see the Church’s strength frittered away in lawsuits.

I suspect those advocating for an amicable schism now have read the tea leaves and realize that, demographically speaking, they’ve already lost the debate on homosexuality. For people my age and younger, even amongst the most conservative evangelical tribes, homosexuality is a non-issue.

Conservatives will never be stronger on this issue than they are at the present, or perhaps better put, the conservative argument is only going to find a rapidly shrinking audience on this issue as public opinion continues to shift.

So better now than later for conservatives to take their assets and run.

The issue of sexuality aside, I find it ironic- and indicative of a deeper problem- that conservatives, those who by definition seek to ‘conserve’ historic institutions and whose frank assessment of human sinfulness leads them to take a dim view towards utopian-minded movements (like creating a ‘purer’ church), are the ones agitating for a schism from the larger UMC.

No matter how we might disagree over sexuality, conservatives should at least agree that an even graver sin we Protestant Christians continue to commit is Protestantism itself, our continued, unreflective disunity from the Church Catholic.

Conservatives routinely pray for revival in the Church but seldom, if ever, do they pray that the Spirit will so manifest itself by repairing what was torn asunder in the Reformation.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

The very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully worship.

Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Catholics can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

The Church’s unity is a present reality won by Christ on the Cross; it is not a goal we can attempt to achieve through politicking or persuasion.

All we can ‘achieve’ is harm to the unity already established through Cross and Resurrection.

There are myriad groups in the United Methodist Church advocating various causes in and around sexuality. There are those who want strategic disunity, those who want to maintain the status quo by asserting their demographic strength, those who want to find a third way and those who want to make the denomination more welcoming and inclusive.

Thus far, I’ve not seen any groups on Facebook or Twitter advocating for the reunification of Methodists with the Church Catholic even though the reason for the original ‘protest,’ justification by grace through faith, has been settled since the 16th century.

So rather than advocating for ‘strategic disunity’ through yet another schism in the One Body of Christ, rather than making another ‘protest’ an end in itself in the face of the unity won by Christ, I think conservatives should instead begin advocating for a Methodist reunification with the Catholic Church.

After all, at least there they’ll find brothers and sisters who already share their views on sexuality. Why wound Christ with another division to his Body when what conservative Methodists seek is already found?

Rather than spend their time and energy bringing yet another wound to Christ’s divided body, conservatives could expend those same resources attempting to persuade our Catholic friends to ameliorate their positions on celibacy, female ordination and the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Moves that would give the rest of us fewer and fewer reasons, save our outright nationalism or prejudice, not to (re)become Catholic.

Not to mention, there’s the whole question of whether in a post-Christian culture the religious marketplace can afford to have so many competing, niche products.

Already ours is a culture that asks ‘What’s a Methodist? Presbyterian?’

The first resolution proposed for next week’s annual conference in my corner of United Methodism proposes that we make our official language more progressive towards homosexuality.

I expect that resolution will meet with its predictable counter argument.

Perhaps as the denominations that once fractured the Church Catholic 4 centuries ago fracture themselves it’s time for a different sort of resolution altogether.

I doubt the schismatic conservatives would claim me, but on their behalf: I move that we United Methodists seeking to heal the wounds long ago done to Christ’s Body take measures to reunify with the Catholic Church whence we came.

Only such a motion, I think, is true re-form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s my sermon for Memorial Day weekend. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I highly recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in there sermon.

You can listen to the sermon here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

     It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

     But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill. For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not- that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

lightstock_128163_small_user_2741517

Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died- making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen- to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again- when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here are some  links and posts I came across this week that might be worth your while:

Why Christians Might Want to Abstain from the Pledge:

Now, many Christians may read this and say “I don’t have a problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but I agree– if I have to choose to be loyal to God or country, I’ll always choose God”. If this is the case, the third problem that arises is that such an individual, when making the Pledge of Allegiance, is actually being dishonest. You can read the rest here.

10310117_10152423618803879_7313295905510655067_nI Will Not Leave You As Orphans:

My friend and now colleague, Taylor Mertins, included a reflection about my two sons in his recent blog post. Made me cry. You can read it here.

Karl Barth’s Failure:

This essay from First Things, a conservative Catholic journal, nails it on Barth, I think, and articulates better than me my current feeling that our secular age requires a retrieval of Christian metaphysics.

Perhaps the best way to understand the spirit of modern philosophy is to see it as a dismantling of the classical understanding of God and the ordered cosmos it sustained. Classical theism names not only a way of thinking about God but a way of understanding the nature of the world and our place in it. Developed through common effort over centuries, it came to endorse a number of interlocking theses: that God’s essence is identical with his existence, that nature is governed by an act of divine intelligence and love, that rational beings find fulfillment in learning the truth about God, and that all knowledge is grounded in God’s self-understanding. You can read the rest here.

Water to Wine (Some of My Story)

My theo-friend Brian Zahnd tells a powerful story about his mid-life faith crisis:

Like Bilbo Baggins I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I’d reached the point where something had to be done. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of pop-culture America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it. Guided by little more than instinct I began reading the Early Church Fathers. You can read the rest here.

 The System vs. The Kingdom

“I believe Jesus is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion. What produced that peculiar speech-act?”

Here’s a reflection perfect thinking about Memorial Day from my muse Stanley Hauerwas:

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517A week from Monday is Memorial Day, the national holiday when we remember those who’ve died in war.

A week from Thursday is Ascension Day, the Christian holy day when we remember that God has given Christ dominion over all the earth to rule as our Lord and King.

Suffice it to say, Christians live in the tension between these two days:

To whom do we pledge our allegiance?

How do we relate to the State?

What is our obligation to fellow Christians in other countries? Especially if they’re our enemies?

When can Christians say yes to war? When must they say no?

This Thursday night at Pub Theology we’ll think through questions like these.

M_Santangelo-1Our special guest will be Marco Santangelo, who serves as the chief librarian at the new George Washington Presidential Library. In addition to that vantage point, Marco also has his Master of Divinity and his Master of Theology from Asbury Seminary and Princeton respectively.

Once again, we’ll meet at Forge Brew Works at 7:00.

You can find them on Facebook too, here.

It’s just off the Fairfax County Parkway on Terminal Road. You can find directions here.

If you’re in the area, come join us.

Oh, and it’s BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair).

St Thomas AquinasIt’s not named the ‘Summa’ for nothing.

In his massive, multi-volume and ultimately unfinished Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas makes his account for the Christian faith by first asking such questions as ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘What can be known about God?’

Only after establishing baseline conclusions about God with which a reasonable non-believer could concur does Aquinas dig a bit deeper, exploring what the Church means by naming God ‘Trinity,’ how God reveals himself in Creation and fully in Christ.

Only at the end of this long, methodical chain of exhaustive logic does Aquinas finally in the end get around to talking about us. Human creatures.

Those whom God foolhardily made in his image.

Much of modern liberal theology has returned the favor, making God in our image and doing so, Stanley Hauerwas argues, by upending Thomas’ medieval method.

The founding father of modern liberal Christianity, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sought to re-present theology as an academically respectable discipline in the light of the scientific age.

Schleiermacher’s 19th century no longer took ‘God’ as self-evident nor did it accept the particulars of Christian doctrine as referents to an exterior, objective reality. As a result, Schleiermacher repositioned Christianity for its ‘cultured despisers’ by turning away from God to the human subject.

Schleiermacher sough to preserve Christian theology’s place within the secular academy by turning away from what could not be proven objectively (theos) and towards what could be objectively established (anthropos).

Religion, therefore, should be judged not according to the soundness of its doctrine but according to its ability to articulate humanity’s feelings of dependence upon ‘God.’

That is, does a particular religion adequately address the human existential crisis.

To save Christian face in polite, secular society, Schleiermacher made us not God the subject of theology; consequently, the coherence of Christianity was to be measured by our emotional appropriation of it not by its correspondence to anything ‘true’ outside it.

By shifting from doctrine to dependence, doctrine itself became subsidiary- even unessential- in modern theology.

One of my muses, Stanley Hauerwas, has made it his life’s work to retrieve Christian theology and its practice (ethics) back from the modernist turn towards the human subject, a turn, which Hauerwas has argued repeatedly, makes Christianity unintelligible; so much so, that a portrait of Scheiermacher with a bulls-eye painted on him could gloss the cover of nearly every Hauerwas book without misleading the reader as to its contents.

hauerwasIt’s a sneak attack then that Nicholas Healy lobs at Hauerwas in his new book, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction.

Healy argues that Hauerwas- the anti-Scheiermacher- merely repeats the modernist sin only in plural form.

Rather than turning away from God to the human subject to justify Christianity’s intelligibility, Hauerwas turns away from God to human subjects. That is, the Church.

Healy writes:

“In spite of his rhetoric of retrieval- his reaffirmation of our distinctively Christian communal identity over against the temptations of liberalism, individualism and sundry other modern or longer-lasting errors- his turn to the church is sharp and thoroughgoing enough to amount to a new direction in theological inquiry.”

As he continues his critique, Healy wonders if Hauerwas’ attempt to ground an account of Christianity in the community’s practice-based interpretation of scripture is sufficiently robust to make the breadth of historic Christian belief intelligible.

Put the other way round, Healy suggests that Hauerwas’ theological vision begins with too narrow a vantage point to ever take in broader Christian themes like Christology or the doctrine of God.

Put an even different way, by beginning where Aquinas’ Summa sought to end Hauerwas’ Theologiae doesn’t have the gas to make it to the other end. If the error of the modernist turn was individualism- a charge with which Hauerwas heartily agrees- the error of Hauerwas’ approach is ecclesiasm, a focus upon the ecclesial community so severe it obscures the God in whose name the community gathers.

Such a reductive focus upon the Church, Healy argues, distorts much of what historic Christianity has proclaimed about the Church and its God. By not beginning theology with God and God’s actions towards the world, Healy argues, Hauerwas finds too little grist to say things about God and God’s actions in the world that any Christian would think need to be said.

I think Healy has hit upon an appropriate critique of Hauewas’ theology if for no other reason than that it’s unique from the ad nauseam, ignorant criticisms of Hauerwas as fideistic and sectarian. And while I certainly think ‘Hauewas is doing ethics not theology’ could serve as adequate reply to Healy’s critique, I also know first-hand the frustration that Hauerwas’ approach provokes for larger theological questions.

This winter I attended a lecture Hauerwas delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary, in which he said:

Nonviolence is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

That makes perfect sense to me.

I know what theological conviction produces such a statement and I can see what conclusions derive from it. But I KNOW it’s obvious to everyone who’s not a theology nerd or a Hauerwas fanboy.

For Hauerwas, Christian nonviolence is the clear implication of Cross and Resurrection. We’re called to nonviolence not because it’s an effective means to an end nor because Christians are utopian idealists.

In Hauerwas’ view, Christians are called to nonviolence precisely because they’re Christians.

But such a claim depends upon a particular understanding of the atonement that may not be clear to every reader or listener.

Indeed Hauerwas’ work assumes a particular understanding of the atonement that is an alternative to how many Christians view the work of the Cross.

Saying nonviolence is the clear implication of the Cross is a complete non sequitor to many Christians steeped in traditions that tell them the message of the Cross is that Jesus died in their place to suffer God’s wrath for their Sin.

Sure, there’s even a more ancient view of the atonement available (Christus Victor). One that’s latent and assumed in much of Hauerwas’ work but he’s never supported his central argument by leveraging a fully developed theology of the atonement which would make his conclusions clear.

I think the full force of Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian nonviolence is lost to many readers (who assume the individualistic, transactional view of penal substitution) because he never specifies his own understanding of what Christ has accomplished.

In reading Healy’s (very) critical treatment of Hauerwas I’m left feeling that both Healy and Hauerwas are correct.

I absolutely concur with Hauerwas’ vision for the church and his identifying Christians as the People called to live the non-violent love of the future Kingdom now. However, I can’t help but agree with Healy that had Hauerwas started his project more like Thomas the conclusions which Hauerwas wants us to affirm would be harder to avoid.

 

 

 

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(Taylor and I inside a temascale in Guatemala circa 2010)

Here is my sermon for the wedding of Taylor Mertins and Lindsey Rickerson this weekend. One of the privileges of a long pastorate in one place- unusual for the United Methodist Church- is that I’ve gotten to see Taylor grow up and I’ve gotten to grow a friendship with him. He’s gone from a youth at church to a friend and now a colleague.

Theirs was a special occasion and so I offer it here too.

The texts were the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 and the ‘walking trees’ do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man in Mark 8, a text only a seminary student would choose for his wedding…

 

It’s not often that someone like me gets to do a wedding for someone they know so well.

And I know Taylor pretty well.

For example, I know that if I can work a Kurt Vonnegut quote into this sermon today that that will be the highlight of Taylor’s wedding day- sorry Lindsey, but you know it’s true.

On any given week, I know which movies at the box office Taylor will want to go see, and I know that never will any of those movies ever stand a chance of trumping Taylor’s completely irrational love for the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic.

I know which novels I can recommend to Taylor that will get him to read every other novel by that author, and I know which novels will reduce Taylor to man-o-pausal tears.

I know that if you really want to upset Taylor and get his boxers in a twist then all you have to do is insist, with convincing seriousness, that NASA faked the first moon landing on a soundstage in Texas.

I even know that Sylvia, Taylor’s grandmother, isn’t happy that I just said the word boxers.

I know Taylor pretty well.

I know Taylor has sat back there at the sound board and listened to dozens of wedding sermons delivered by Rev. Dennis Perry over the years; and as a result, I know the bar for this wedding sermon is pretty low.

I know Taylor pretty well.

And I know that if you ask my youngest son, Gabriel, about Taylor, he won’t refer to him as ‘Taylor Mertins’ or ‘Rev’ or ‘Taylor’ or even my nickname for Taylor that Taylor hates so much that I can’t speak in this room.

No, I know Gabriel will say ‘my friend Taylor.’ That’s what Gabriel calls him.

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I know Taylor pretty well.

And though Taylor and Lindsey started dating just 3 1/2 years ago, I know Lindsay pretty well too.

I spent 8 days, 24 hours a day with Lindsey in Guatemala this past summer, which is more time than any Christian should have to spend with church people.

I’ve shared an outhouse with Lindsey. I’ve shared a sweat bath with Lindsey. And I’ve pitched mortar to Lindsey. So I know Lindsey pretty well too.

I know how incredibly shy and reserved and introverted Lindsey is. I know how she’d never dream of giving Taylor a piece of her mind or setting him straight, and I know that if you’re not at least smiling right now- I know Lindsey better than you.

I know Lindsey pretty well.

I know that Lindsey knows the best way to connect with someone is to ask questions of them, to express genuine curiosity and interest in them. Which sounds obvious. Until you start counting the number of people who actually do that.

I know Lindsey pretty well too.

I’ve seen Lindsey chop cement blocks with a machete so I know the hand Taylor reaches out for today is a steady one, one that can be trusted.

I know both of you pretty well.

Taylor, I’ve seen you grow up. I’ve seen you sing off key at a monastery in France, and I’ve seen you lead worship on a mountain top in Guatemala. And Lindsey, even though you speak pretty good Spanish, in Guatemala I’ve seen you convey more of your heart with your just eyes and your body language than with any words.

I’ve seen a lot of both of you. I know both of you pretty well.

     But the truth is-

     I haven’t seen the ‘you’ you truly are.

The truth is-

I don’t really ‘know’ either of you.

 I don’t know you to the degree we’re called to know and love God: with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength and all our soul.

To that extent, you’re both strangers to me.

    I don’t really know either of you.

    Of course, as any married person here can tell you, neither do you.

    Really know each other. Really see each other.

Like Taylor, I’ve taken hours and hours of counseling classes. But it’s in my own relationship that I learned the fundamental rule of marriage. I call it Jason’s Rule.

Jason’s Rule goes like this:

     You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

     You never really ‘see’ the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.

As any Duke grad and divinity school girlfriend will recognize, Jason’s Rule is just a shameless rip-off of Hauerwas’ Rule: ‘You never marry the right person…because you never know who it is you’re marrying.’

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Whether you have a terrific relationship or a terrible one, Jason’s Rule- it’s fool proof.

You never really know and see the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. And if that sounds scary, just consider that Jason’s Rule- like Hauerwas’ Rule- has an even more frightening corollary:

You are never as fully seen and known as you are seen and known by the person to whom you’re married.

Marriage isn’t just a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married.

Marriage is a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you call ‘you.’

If the fullness of what it means to love is to know the other with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then to be loved means that our heart and mind and soul and strength are fully exposed and seen and known by another.

And God, that’s scary. Because it’s not often that our heart or mind or soul or strength measure up to our own estimation of them.

To borrow St. Mark’s image, until we’re seen and known by another in marriage the ‘you’ you call you is like a fuzzy tree walking around. And that’s terrifying. It’s why even the best marriages aren’t easy.

Of course, it’s also what makes marriage such a beautiful leap of faith.

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Because when we’re in love, before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our self.

We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well our spouse eventually will know us.

     tumblr_lghlcgx0z21qg9q39o1_400As Kurt Vonnegut says in Mother Night, “We must be careful about who we pretend to be.”

 

So as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were.

Because in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. Your heart and mind and soul and strength- they’re like ‘trees’ coming into focus.

     It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage; it’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we would like.

It’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed in marriage. It’s your own.

And even in the best of marriages, it’s not long before you’re thinking:

You don’t appear to be the same person I thought you were.

     I know that might sound like bad news, but it’s not. Not only is it not bad news, it’s what you’re promising to each other.

In fact, it’s why I think our Catholic friends are right to call what you’re about to do a ‘sacrament.’

As any seminary graduates here know, the definition of a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.’ You need the outward, visible sign for it to count as a sacrament.

And so with the Eucharist, you’ve got the broken bread and the cup of wine. Check.

And with Baptism, you’ve got the poured-out water. Check.

And in Marriage, we’ve got…you two.

Check.

You two.

     Today you two become the tangible, sensible, seeable sign of God’s ineffable, incomprehensible, unseeable loving grace.

     You two.

     Today you two become one of our best opportunities to see and touch God. Today you two become a sacrament. Like the water in the font or the bread and wine on the table. And the whole point of sacraments is change. Transformation. Perfection.

We baptize to wash away and to immerse into a new life.

We don’t break bread and pass the cup hoping it will help us remain exactly who we are and neither do we give rings and give away our future hoping that that future will find us the same people we are today.

    Sacraments- visible signs of God’s invisible love- are meant to change us.

    Transform us. Slowly and over time.

     That’s why marriage is such risky business.

When Taylor married his sister, Haley, a few months ago, he had the them turn around to look at all those gathered in support of them. Today I want to do something like the opposite. I want you two to look at each other.

(Here I had a a couple groomsmen hold up a large mirror in front of them)

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     I want you two to look at each other because today the two of you are not just saying ‘I do’ to the person standing next to you, the person you’ve come to love and cherish and delight in; you’re also saying ‘I do’ to whomever or whatever that person is going to become, by becoming married to you.

     And that’s something that is unknown and unseen to the both of you.

That’s the risk you two take today, but as far as the Church is concerned it’s a beautiful risk.

It’s what makes this an act of faith.

The people you will be at the end of your life together, after your heart and mind and soul and strength have been known and seen by the other- the people you will be will not be the people you are right now.

Today, with vows and rings, you give yourselves over to be transformed by being seen and known by the other.

Today you covenant to let the sight and perceptions of the other shape you anew so that your marriage will yield different people from whom you are today.

By the promises you make today you become for us not just a sacrament, but a parable…of the love of God.

By your commitment to go forward with each other even though the way cannot be seen, will never be certain- you remind us of how God loves each of us.

     You are a sacrament.

     A sign.

     A sign that I hope will eventually change every one of us.