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Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Simple Faith

Matthew 6:24-34


‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave 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.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Annie Dillard, in her wonderful book Teaching a Stone to Talk, tells about encountering a weasel one day in the woods. A weasel, she writes, bites his prey at the neck . . . and does not let go. And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton – once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

We live, Dillard says, by choice, but a weasel lives by necessity. A weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of a single necessity.[1]

There is abundant evidence that we are overwhelmed by our choices. How many of you have gone to the store to buy cereal, or paper towels, or anything, and stood there in the aisle paralyzed by the hundreds of virtually identical items to choose from? Have you tried lately to decide what kind of car to buy? There is a story that when Bishop William Cannon was dean of Candler School of Theology in the 1960’s, he asked his best friend, Professor and later Bishop Mack Stokes, if Cannon gave him the money, to go downtown in Atlanta and buy him a new car. “Well, Bill,” Stokes replied, “that’s pretty unusual, but I’ll do that if you want. But what kind of car do you want me to buy?” Cannon thought a minute and answered, “Well, I guess a green one would be nice.”

We are overwhelmed by our choices. Michael Shut writes that Americans spend an average of 40 minutes per week playing with their children, but 6 hours a week shopping. The average annual pocket money for American children is more than the total annual income for a half-billion of the world’s poorest people. American couples spend an average of 12 minutes per day talking to each other. 30% of American adults report feeling high stress every day. The majority of Americans get 60 to 90 minutes less sleep per night than recommended for good health. We live in the richest country in the history of the world, but there is a growing sense that something is very, very wrong with the way we live. We are overwhelmed by the choices.

In the Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel reading, it seems to me that Jesus calls us, like weasels, to live by necessity rather than be paralyzed by choices. A faithful life doesn’t consist of worrying about the infinite varieties of food and shelter and clothing. Our lives should be centered on the one great necessity – the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. The one necessary thing in life, Jesus tells us, is to love God and love our neighbor. Everything else flows from that. That’s the first priority, and when we make the main thing the main thing, then the other things begin to fall into their proper place.

Right, preacher. More easily said than done. How do I do that in the face of all the choices I have to make every day in my life. I don’t have time to consider the lilies or watch the sparrows. How can I move from my life of complex choices to a life of simple necessity?

Gerald May, on the faculty of Wesley Seminary and the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation, says there is a connection between the complexity of our lives and our lack of solitude. When we make space in our lives, when we spend extended time alone and in silence, we begin to realize what’s important and what’s not. Solitude and space put our consumerist culture in perspective. The consumer culture constantly tells us that more – of anything – will make us happy: more money, more people, more prestige, more food, more, more, more. And, because more doesn’t make us happy, we have to have more. It’s a great system, except that it kills the soul. So, instead of more, what would happen if we tried less: less busy, less frantic; fewer commitments, activities, possessions. What if we turned from lives of choice to lives of necessity, making space for Jesus to come?

May says there are two difficulties in making space in our lives. First, we are addicted – addicted to filling up every space we encounter, whether it be physical space – our homes, our offices; our emotional and spiritual space – with constant noise and music and activity; or our calendars. Like an addict, if it is quiet, we turn on some noise; if there is nothing to do, we do something; if our minds are empty, we find something to fill them. We will have to withdraw from that addiction, and that will take hard work.

The second difficulty in making space in our lives is our fear of what emptiness will reveal to us. We would rather be paralyzed by a thousand choices than face what’s really going on in us, revealed in silence and solitude. Our business, says May, weaves a harsh, desperate barrier against participation in love.[2]

How do we begin to live countercultural, simpler, more faithful lives, freed from the desperate and unhappy consumerism of our culture? How can we begin to live like weasels, living by necessity, and not by choice? First, says Gerald May, we have to look for the natural spaces in our lives. We all have them, if we will just pay attention. Maybe it’s when you have finished a job or a task, and you just relax for a moment. Could you stretch that a little? Maybe it’s a long, hot bath at the end of the day, a walk in the garden in the morning or the end of the day, a few minutes listening to music. Those moments that you usually fill by watching TV, or reading, or eating, that dulls you even though you call them recreation – could they just become empty space?

Second, May writes, set aside some regular time each day for just being, and not doing. Perhaps in the morning, take a few minutes not to read or listen to news or even read the Bible, but just to be still. At the end of the day, just sit quietly and recollect the day, and count your blessings. You will be amazed at how those spaces will begin to transform your sense of what is necessary and what is not.

Finally, May suggests we look for longer spaces. Plan a retreat, a silent day, become part of a prayer or meditation group. Not a talk-filled Bible study or conference filled with agenda, but an extended period to seek stillness and deepening alone or together. I know that if it were not for the annual silent retreat I enjoyed last week and every February with a dozen other clergy, I would not still be in the ministry. I might not even be a Christian. Vicki can tell you that while our spouses first complained about us leaving them for five days, now they look forward to the change in us after we have been quiet, rested, and in prayer for a week. If that sounds like something you’d like to do for a day, or a weekend, or maybe even a week, come and talk to me about that. I’d love to teach you how to experience that kind of space in your life as well. As addicts, we are more likely to break our addiction to choices if we do that together than if we try to do it separately. That’s what it means for us to be church – for us to support each other in breaking our addiction to the self-important busyness of the world.

We live trying to decide between a thousand choices, all of which promise to make us happy and healthy and whole. Jesus calls us to live like weasels, by necessity. Listen to how Annie Dillard phrases that life: I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.[3]

[1] Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper Perennial, pp. 29-34

[2] May, Gerald, Simpler Living, Compassionate Life, Morehouse, p. 47

[3] Dillard, Annie, ibid., p.34

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Matthew 5:27-37: Hard Core Faith

Epiphany 6A, 2011


‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Earlier this week I was having a discussion with our young adult group here at church about the classic move, The Wizard of Oz. We were talking about the moment when Dorothy and the farmhouse, carried aloft in the tornado, land in Oz on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy, filmed in black and white, opens the farmhouse door, and suddenly the movie is in color. I was telling the young adults, all in their twenties, that for many years, watching the movie on TV as a child, I didn’t know about the change from black and white to color, because our TV was black and white. One young man stared at me, uncomprehending. “You mean, you watched it on VHS?” he asked. “No, that was long before video tape. All the televisions were black and white until the early 1960’s.” He continued to stare at me in utter bewilderment – I don’t think he’s ever seen a black and white television.

Not only did my generation grow up watching black and white TV, but all of our lives were black and white. I grew up in a white suburb, went to a white church, and went from grades one through twelve without a single person of color in my school except the janitors and one high school coach (who, by the way, was adored by the students and voted teacher of the year). Black people lived in downtown or East Baltimore, or places very far away like Little Rock or Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, and we watched them on the news at night as white people tried to prevent them from attending white schools and colleges and from riding in the front of city buses. I had no black friends. But at the dinner table, as we would talk about the sometimes literal burning issues of the day, my father would give his opinions about black people. He worked with black people every day on the construction site. The black people he knew were uneducated and literally dug ditches for him. So he did not have a high opinion of black people, because of the black people he knew, and he assumed that all black people were like the people he knew digging ditches for him every day.

It wasn’t until college that I made my first black friend, a student on my dormitory hall named Gordon Wichter. Gordon was brilliant, he was funny, and not like any of the things my father had said black people were like. Gordon started the Black Student Association at UVa in his dormitory room that first year. I got to know other students in the Association, and they weren’t like the people my father talked about, either. And I made my first Jewish friends, my first Asian friends, my first gay friends. And none of them were like the stories I had heard about them all my life.

What had happened was that I moved from thinking about people as things – whether black or white or gay or Asian or Jewish – to knowing them as real people who were amazing in their diversity and complexity and wonder. So, when I went home for the first time that first fall, and my father began to talk about such and such a group of people who act and think and do and believe in such and such a way, I reacted by telling him that I knew people in those groups, and that’s not the way they were at all. I now knew more than my father, which made him ever so happy. As the saying goes, you can always tell a college freshman, but you cannot tell him much.

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus gives us two concrete situations in which people are being treated as objects, and not as living, caring people. The first is in the case of lust. Lust is not an exclusively male problem, I’m sorry to say. In fact, it’s been my observation that especially among adolescents, girls are at least as often the aggressors as are the guys. So, let’s make Jesus’ words inclusive: anyone who looks at anyone with lust has already committed adultery.

On Super Bowl Sunday, many evangelical churches decided to talk about pornography. I don’t know why they decided to talk about porn on that Sunday, but I find the connection intriguing. Fox TV’s introduction to the Super Bowl, linking it with the Declaration of Independence, the sacrifice of soldiers, and the greatest generation was, I thought, if not pornographic at least obscene. The internet has made pornography easily and cheaply available to everyone, and it is a serious issue everywhere, including in church households.

The second, and connected, issue Jesus addresses is divorce. The issue of divorce in the first century was that Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife on the spot for the most trivial of causes – from a wart to bad cooking to talking too much. The husband could simply say in public, “I divorce you,” and the woman was left bereft of home and care. The link between lust and first-century divorce is that both treated people as objects – as things to be coveted or to be thrown away. Both situations treat people as property: I want that car, I want that dress, I want that person. I don’t want that car or that dress anymore – I don’t want that person anymore.

Not long ago a man came to me to talk about the struggles he continued to have into middle age with lust. Again, I don’t believe that’s an exclusively male issue. In fact, one of the flip sides of the women’s movement has been, in the words of a friend of mine, to now allow women to be as immature and irresponsible as men have long been. I told the struggling man that one of the things that really helped me was to separate appreciating beauty from the desire to possess. I can go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and admire a Monet or a Picasso painting without feeling like I need to have that painting on the wall of my house. In the same way, I have learned to look at people and say, “That person is beautiful” without the need to “have” that person. The world says that to like or to love means that we must possess. That’s a lie. The truth is that none of us ever really possess anything – as the John Ortberg book the Grace Davis class is studying says, “It all goes back into the box,” just as someday you and I have to go back into the box as well. When we begin to understand how to love without having to have, we are freed to love more than we ever dreamed possible.

People are not things, Jesus is telling us, to be coveted or to be thrown away. And, because people are not things but sacred and unique, each person is to be known and understood and loved not as a category – black, white, male, female, young, old, Christian, Muslim, Jew, liberal, conservative, Hokie, Wahoo . . . fill in your own blank . . . but, in the words of a song by John McCutcheon, as Moishe, Isabelle, Sipho, Mikael, Kim, Mohammed, Red Hawk, and Tim. At the hard-core heart of Christian faith is the conviction that God has made and loves every single human being deliberately and uniquely. That, by the way, is the fundamental connection between Christianity and democracy – that the individual is sacred and unique and therefore has just as much voice in the public square as does anyone else. To treat people as things is both anti-christian and anti-democratic.

The last issue Jesus addresses in this morning’s Gospel is whether there are degrees of truth or not. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word truthiness, which was named the Word of the Year in 2006 by Merriam-Webster. Truthiness is a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.[1] It appears every night on our TV screens, and every day in conversations private and public. It’s truth that we wish were true – like my father’s declarations about what black people are like – despite what the real facts may be. Jesus addresses this by instructing his followers not to swear – not swear as in say bad words, but to make a distinction between official truth, sworn on a Bible or on our mother’s grave or Scout’s Honor, and any other kind of truth. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No a No, because anything else comes from the evil one. Why? Because way back in the Garden of Eden, the snake was trying to convince Eve that God had different levels of truth: You will not die – God knows if you eat that fruit you will be like God, knowing good and evil. But Adam and Eve did die when they disobeyed – their communion with God and with each other died. It’s no accident that the first point of the Scout Law, on this Scout Sunday, is . . . trustworthy. Don’t tell the truth you wish were true – tell it like it is.

It’s ever so much easier to tell the truth we want to be true. It’s ever so much easier to treat people as things to be coveted and to be cast away. Telling the truth that is true may be simpler in the long run, but it’s usually ever so much harder. And being in a relationship with separate and unique individuals is incredibly harder than treating people as categories and objects. Following Jesus is hard work, requiring hard core faith. But Jesus treats every single one of us as absolutely unique and precious, and loves us in all our weirdness. If we’re going to follow Jesus, don’t we have to do the same?


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jesus and the Law

Epiphany 5A, 2011

Matthew 5:13-20


‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For those of you who may not know, before I was appointed to Providence I was the Senior Pastor at Shady Grove church in Mechanicsville, and before that I was the Superintendent of the Ashland District, which includes both Shady Grove and Providence. Early in my tenure as Superintendent of the district’s sixty churches, I was asked by the leadership of one of the churches on the district – not this one – to meet with them because of issues they were having with their pastor. I went out to meet with the church leaders and the pastor. Now, the pastor was a very intelligent, creative, and hard-working person. He was a good preacher, a good administrator, he visited the sick and the shut-in faithfully, taught small groups, and did everything in the job description well. But the congregation did not like him, resisted his leadership, and wanted him to leave.

I couldn’t figure it out. Almost always when a congregation wants to divorce their pastor, it’s because there’s been a failure in one or more aspects of that ministry. The pastor can’t preach, doesn’t visit, won’t lead, or, in a few cases, there’s been a serious moral failure by the pastor. None of these were the case in this situation. But as I listened to the congregation more, it became clear that the congregation didn’t feel that the pastor loved them. He did all the things he was supposed to do, but because they were the things he was supposed to do. In fact, he thought they were a bunch of ignorant and stubborn rednecks, and he was doing his best to lead them, despite their supposed stupidity, into the light. The congregation was dead on target – their pastor didn’t love them.

That same year, another pastor came to me and told me he needed to move, because, he said, his congregation needed a better preacher. I went to hear him, and he was right. He was terrible. He had gone to preaching workshops and had coaching, but he was terrible in the pulpit. But his congregation adored him, and was terribly upset at the thought of him leaving. The difference between this second pastor and the first was that in the second case, even though there were several things, especially preaching, that the pastor didn’t do well, the congregation felt deeply loved by their pastor. And it was true. He loved them so much that he engaged an outside preacher to come in once a month so the congregation could here a good sermon monthly. And finally this pastor decided that wasn’t enough, and that he needed to leave so I could send them a competent preacher.

The first pastor kept all the rules, and did so with great competence, but it wasn’t enough. The second pastor couldn’t fulfill all the rules, but it was more than enough. The difference between the two was love.

That’s what Jesus is telling his listeners in today’s gospel lesson. All the rules still apply. But the rules – whether a job description or the commandments – are descriptions of what faithfulness looks like. The Pharisees, despite what you may have learned in Sunday School, were actually a group of liberal reformers who wanted Jews to get back to obeying the law, because they believed that if they were obedient, then the Messiah would return. They turned the law, which was meant to describe a community faithful to God and to each other, into a prescription for holiness. Holiness consists of doing these things.

My hero, the 16th century German reformer Martin Luther, had a very helpful way of understanding the relationship between faith and the law. Luther said the law does three things:

First, the law describes what God expects of us. God expects us to love God alone, to keep Sabbath, to honor the elders, to not murder or covet, to tell the truth. But if we’re honest – which, after all, is a commandment -- none of us keep all the rules. We have divided loyalties. We murder or lust after people in our hearts, we want other people’s stuff, we sass our parents, because, after all, they are the stupidest people who ever walked the face of the earth until we have children of our own and suddenly our parents look pretty smart. So, it turns out, God has impossible expectations of us. It’s not fair!

Which is the second use of the law: it kills us. We can’t keep it. So, there are two things we can do in response to this impossible command. We can throw a tantrum for the rest of our lives like some overgrown three year old and rebel against God and life and the universe, which is what most people do; or we can surrender, throw ourselves at God’s feet and beg for mercy because we can’t make it on our own, at which point God says, Well, it’s about time. Now, let me help you do what you can’t do on your own.

Now, third, the law describes what a life lived depending on God looks like. We trust in God alone, we live in harmony with each other, we keep Sabbath because the world doesn’t depend on us, we tell the truth, and we honor the wisdom of the elders.

Jesus’ problem with the scribes and the Pharisees was that they thought that if they just tried, really, really hard, then God would love them and answer their prayers for deliverance. They had it backwards: first, we throw ourselves on the grace of God and beg for help, and God answers because God already loves us. Then, with God’s help, and only with God’s help, we begin, out of love, to look like the picture painted by the rules.

Remember those two preachers I talked about? The second went to a little church that was unloved and dying, and now they feel adored because they are. Their pastor still can’t preach his way out of a wet paper bag, but they don’t care. The first pastor has moved in and out of the pastorate, and from one church to another. What he does he does very well, except he still doesn’t love his people. Which is why he keeps moving, and moving, and moving.