Thursday, April 29, 2010

Time is . . .

Fill in the blank: Time is _________.

I expect most Americans would automatically answer, "Time is money." But Jesus and subsequent Christian tradition fill in the blank differently.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, those who are being purged of their sloth exhort one another with: “Faster! Faster! We have no time to waste, for time is love. Try to do good, that grace may bloom again." Purgatorio, Canto XVIII, 103 – 105

To waste time is to waste the opportunity to love. That, in brief, is the sin of sloth.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." John 13:34-35

Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.):
“The fruit of living in love is life from God, and one who lives in love smells the air of resurrection, while still in this world. Love is the kingdom. The Lord gave his apostles the mysterious promise that they would eat of it in his kingdom. For it is said: ‘That you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom’ (Luke22:30) And what can this mean, if not love? This is the ‘wine’ that makes ‘glad the heart of man’ (Psalm 53:15) blessed is the one who drinks that wine!”

A prayer of St. Bridget of Vadstena, Sweden (1303-1373):
Kindle in my heart
the fire of your love
so that all therein
which is against
your will is swept
away as ashes in
the blowing wind

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism

In the 20th century, there was a great religious leader who also became a great political leader. After some time in exile, he returned to lead his people and led them as they threw off their oppressors and the forces that threatened their cultural integrity. When he died, the whole nation was frantic with grief. The leader's name? It could be Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual founder of modern India. But, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual father of the current Iranian theocracy, also fits the profile. He remains in very high esteem, not only in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world.

Can we say that both these men had equally valid and appealing grasps on the nature of the divine and what it means to be human? Or that either's guess was as good as the other's when it came to pointing to the ineffable, the sacred or the holy? Will we not inevitably credit one more than the other? On what basis? Their respective effects on American foreign policy? The degree to which their words and actions comport with certain intellectual currents in the West? Our individual tastes?

The Mahatma or the Ayatollah. If we prefer one over the other, it will be based on something. Nobody actually in practice accords all religions and all religious teaching equal respect. Everyone uses some standard by which to measure their merits – our cultural/political/class/national prejudices and convictions etc. There is a presumed superiority in whatever standard is used and however conscious or unconscious its application. Something will be trump. It is no more presumptuous for Christians to say that we measure Gandhi and Khomeini against the example of Jesus Christ because he is the definitive revelation of the divine-human drama than to use something else as trump.

The earliest Christian creed was "Jesus is Lord," i.e., Jesus is trump. It had to be declared. It had to be lived. It had to be, if it came to it, died for. Because it was true. If Jesus was just one among many spirit persons, even though a particular favorite, he could not – cannot – be Lord. And there would be little point in paying him any more attention than Spartacus or Socrates. Nor would there be any conflict between worshipping Jesus and worshipping Caesar. To claim Jesus as Lord means that everything else – personal preferences, familial traditions, political ideologies, national loyalties, other religious teachings – everything is measured in light of what we know of God and life in light of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This does not mean that there is no truth or wisdom to be learned elsewhere. One can hold emphatically that Jesus is uniquely Lord and still believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through the hearts and scriptures of those who do not know him as Lord. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying. But, we lose something essential when we abandon the scandal of particularity that is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. With reverence. With gentleness. With humility. With forbearance. But, it must be declared.

I am concerned that in our reaction to simplistic, heavy-handed fundamentalism, we not slip into a simplistic pluralism that has more to do with the intellectual agnosticism of modernity than with Christian witness to the mystery of God. As Stephen Prothero has written in a fine article, such pluralism is not only disingenuous and misleading, it is also dangerous.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Way of the Slaughtered Lamb

Sermon for Easter 3, April 18, 2010
Acts 9:1-20, Revelation 5:11-14

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
(The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia)

If it’s true it changes everything. If it’s not true, we might as well get on with business as usual.

Saul, we read in Acts, was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. Still. He hadn’t yet realized that everything had changed. He was still operating under the old way. The old way is that when what is good and right and true is threatened you meet that threat with counter-threats. What Saul knew was good and right and true was threatened by these crazy people of “the Way” – the way of Jesus who had recently been executed as a security threat. But the threat had continued with his followers. They had to be stopped. And Saul was going to stop them.

But, on his way, Saul himself was stopped. Surrounded by a flash of light, he fell on the ground. He had been sure Jesus was the enemy of God and all that was good. And now he is confronted by that same Jesus back from the dead. Under the old way, Saul knew what to expect. He was toast! But, Jesus does not fry Saul. Rather he says, “Get up. I’ve got something for you to do.”

Try to appreciate how mind-blowing this is. Saul, who had been sure that what he was doing was right and pleasing to God, discovers he is doing exactly the opposite. Instead of doing the good he wants, he is doing the evil he did not want to do. He is opposing God! How wretched. No wonder everything went black. No wonder a chastened Saul-cum-Paul would later write, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” It is a statement of humility that he learned the hard way. It is the wisdom of humility we would all do well to take to heart.

But there is more. Saul’s falling on the ground is not just an act of fear, it is an act of humble repentance. Then, amazingly, in spite of Saul's finding himself the enemy of God, Jesus reconciles him and says, “Get up. I’ve got something for you to do.” I hope you are able to hear the good news, the grace, in that. I hope you are able to hear Jesus saying the same to you when you find yourself to have been opposing God in one way or another. “Yes, you’ve blown it. Yes, you are in the wrong. You are right to repent. Get up. I’ve got something for you to do.”

What Saul had not realized was that with the death and resurrection of Jesus things had changed. Like a Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle long after peace had been declared, Saul was still breathing threats and murder after God had declared the war over offering amnesty to all comers. The Lamb that was slaughtered is now the sign of power and wealth and wisdom and honor and glory and blessing. Those ideas – and the very idea of God – must now be interpreted in that light.

Saul’s conversion was rather sudden and dramatic. Ananias’ was more of a process. He was already a Jesus follower. He knew that Jesus was the Way. But he still needed to live into the Way Jesus is. He had every reason to reject Saul or at least to resist accepting his sincerity. Saul was one of the bad guys. But that is still thinking the old way. The Way Jesus is is a way in which there are no real enemies, but only potential brothers and sisters. As Augustine preached, “Most of the time, when you think you are hating your enemy, you are hating your brother without knowing it.” That is the Way of Jesus. That is the Way of the Lamb that was slaughtered to absorb all the violence and hate, all the sin and suffering, and transform it into reconciliation, mercy, and grace.

Maybe we should have bumper stickers that say, “Come to St. Barnabas. We worship a slaughtered Lamb.” If we really believe the Lamb that was slaughtered is also risen and at the heart of it all, how might that change the way we live? It seems harder to meet threats – large or small, real or imagined – to my security, or to things I hold dear, with counter-threats and murder (and remember Jesus’ expansive understanding of what constitutes murder). If the Way of the One who is the Way is the way of self-emptying, the way of the Lamb that is slaughtered, do we want to still be about business as usual? If, like Ananias, we can understand enemies to be brothers and sisters unknown, shouldn’t we seek reconciliation? If, like Saul, we know ourselves to be receivers of mercy and grace, shouldn’t we be humble agents of that mercy and grace?

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
(The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

Everything has changed.

Get up. I’ve got something for you to do.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why do you believe in God?

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2010
John 20:19-31
(This is somewhat amplified, and thus a bit longer than the actual sermon):

Why do you believe in God? Why do you believe in God? Maybe you’ve had some mystical, burning-bush experience like Moses. Maybe you’ve had a dramatic conversion experience and you can point to the difference God has made in your life. Maybe you are struck by the beauty and grandeur of creation. Or maybe, you were just raised that way and it makes sense to you. Do you ever doubt your belief? Or maybe you are one of those who find belief in God difficult, plagued by questions and doubts. Do you ever doubt your doubts?

In this morning’s gospel we hear about Thomas who has been tagged with the nickname, “Doubting Thomas”. Thomas is a lot more complex than this nickname would suggest and some have tried to rehabilitate him and drop the nickname. But, since our Lord himself says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe,” I think the nickname is going to stick. And I am glad. I am glad there is one among the original disciples who has a reputation for doubting. I am glad because I am someone for whom belief in God does not come easily. I often feel like I have more questions than answers. Someone once said that the epitaph on my tombstone should read, “Just one more question . . .”

Belief is sometimes difficult for me, but unbelief has proven impossible. Let me explain. For me, when it gets right down to it, I believe in God because of the suffering and injustice in the world. I know that the suffering and injustice in the world is supposed to be the great stumbling block to faith in God. But, I’m just backwards enough to find that to be the reason to believe. Every time I’ve tried to be an atheist (and I have tried) I run up against the reality that to be an atheist forced me to face a contradiction – a contradiction between my mind and my heart. Either I went with my mind and followed logic to its utmost conclusion or I followed my heart. But the two could not be followed together.

When I tried to be an atheist and followed the logic of my mind I was forced to admit that the beginning of all that is, and the beginning of all that I am, was an accident. The end of all that is and all that I am will also be, more or less, an accident. Everything in between is a meaningless event suspended between two accidents. Nothing, ultimately, has any meaning. Nothing, ultimately, has any purpose. All we are left with is our personal preferences and prejudices as to what is good and what is not so good. I know that most atheists deny this or try to get around it, but they are kidding themselves. Albert Camus was more honest. In his book, The Rebel, he wrote that if we believe in nothing, then it does not matter ultimately if we stoke the fires of the crematorium, as did the Nazis, or if we serve the lepers in Africa, as did Albert Schweitzer. It all comes to the same thing. He goes on, “Evil and virtue are mere chance and caprice.” Camus expended a lot of energy trying to face into this and find a way to live humanly in spite of it. But, he did so without sentimentalism and resolutely rejecting what he considered false hope. In the end, there is evidence that he began to question his atheism.

The flipside of the question “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” is the question, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” Why should I? There is no logical reason to give the lives of people priority over the lives of cattle. They are both just the accidental byproducts of evolution and history. Our inclination otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism. If there is no God at the heart of it all, one can only conclude that we have evolved ourselves into an existential cul-de-sac. At some point in our evolution longings for meaning and purpose, for believing there is good and evil were useful in our survival as a species. But now we know that those longings are but a trick of evolution and baseless.

But, that is a dry and weary land where no water is and humans cannot live there. However much my mind might say that there is no meaning, my heart cried out in contradiction, “No!” My heart insisted that there is meaning. It’s not a matter of indifference. I began to doubt my doubts. I suspected that my response to news about people abused, tortured and killed was not just a matter of my own personal preference. The response of my heart is in tune with the response at the heart of the universe. That offense, the offense we take in the face suffering and injustice, does not prove that there is a God, but it at least points us towards God.

The reason to believe in a more particular God is contained in this morning’s gospel. Let’s set the scene. The disciples had responded to the call of Jesus and followed him around for three years. They had heard his teaching and witnessed his deeds. They had come to believe and hope that he was the one who would redeem Israel and through Israel redeem humanity setting everything right. He was the Messiah. But, then he was arrested, tortured and crucified. Now he was dead. Dead. And with him their hope had died. They were huddled in hiding with the door locked. The air was thick with despair. And it was thick with fear. If they had tortured and killed Jesus, wouldn’t they likely do the same to his closest associates? The air was also thick with guilt. One way or another each of the disciples had denied or abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Jesus whom they had loved.

Then, beyond all imagining, into this stifling atmosphere Jesus himself appears. It would be unnerving enough to have someone you knew to be dead show up in your locked-up room. We can expect they were more than a little spooked. But, remember they had denied and abandoned Jesus. If this is his ghost come back to haunt them, they might well expect him to be intent on retribution. But, rather than condemning them, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” It is what God and God’s messengers say again and again in the Bible when appearing to human beings. This word of Jesus to the disciples after all that has transpired is an undeniable word of grace and forgiveness. With his peace he offers reconciliation and addresses their guilt. He gives them his Spirit that they might be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s a God I can start to believe in.

But, there’s more. Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He later invites Thomas to touch the wounds. How remarkable that Jesus returns from the grave with the wounds remaining. Don’t you think – if you were going to make this up – that you’d have Jesus come back whole without a mark? But, he doesn’t. He comes back with the wounds. I believe that it is more than just a means of demonstrating that the one appearing before them is truly Jesus who was crucified. The wounds identify Jesus, but they also reveal something about Jesus and, thus, about God.

The wounds are the ultimate marks of what we might already suspect given the incarnation. We believe that, in some sense beyond our complete understanding, Jesus is God enfleshed. In taking on human flesh, God in Christ has entered into the mess of human reality, the reality of sin, suffering and death. The wounds indicate that having entered that reality he entered it to the uttermost – abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed. This is not “god” as an abstract idea. The God we know in and through Jesus has placed himself in solidarity in the concrete reality of human history with all its terror and tragedy. This God is not aloof. This God has taken on sin, suffering and death in the incarnation and taken them all the way to the cross. This God bears the wounds. This God bears the wounds of all of history. This God bears the wounds you and I have suffered as well as those we have inflicted. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, wrote, "The wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of men [sic] . . . Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship." This is a God I can begin to believe in.

But, Jesus doesn’t simply bear the wounds. In resurrection, he returns with the wounds transformed. This is not a case of “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.” His torture and death were all too real, as is the torture and death that have marked so much of the human story. A belief in immortality alone does not address this tragic story. But, the Christian hope is not that we might simply escape from the unhappy reality of sin and suffering. It is not that it will all just be forgotten. Our hope is that sin and suffering will be transformed into resurrection glory. The wounds are testimony that transformation. Such a God, a God of transformation is a God I can hope in.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus enters into the stifling atmosphere of the room where the disciples are locked in fear, guilt, and despair. He breathes the fresh air into the room and into their hearts dispelling their fear with his peace, their guilt with his forgiveness, and their despair with the new hope of transformation and new creation by way of resurrection. He brings them new life. And he sends them into a sinful, suffering world to be resurrection people, new creation people – people who bear witness to peace, forgiveness, and hope.

He breathes that same fresh air of his peace, forgiveness, and hope into our fear, guilt, and despair. He fills our suffering with his presence and the promise of transformation. He calls us to be resurrection people.

The God we know in Jesus – a God who bears the wounds – might not resolve all our questions or doubts. But, if this is who we’re talking about, I can join Thomas and say, “My Lord and my God!”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Mystery of Easter

"What you call a fact depends on the theory you bring to it."
Albert Einstein (source unknown)

Lesslie Newbigin (Proper Confidence):
"The simple truth is that resurrection cannot be accommodated to any way of understanding the world except one in which it is the starting point."


"The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross."

Walter Kunneth (Theology of the Resurrection):
"We may say without exaggeration: at the tomb in Jerusalem the ultimate choice will be made between two totally different world-views."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Mystery of Easter):
“In Jesus Christ we believe the God who has become human crucified and resurrected. In the incarnation, we recognize God’s love for his creation; in the crucifixion, God’s judgment over all flesh; in the resurrection, God’s will for a new world.”


“Certainly we assume the grave was empty. But only one thing is important: God has declared himself to Christ and has touched him with his eternal life. Now Christ lives because God lives and because God’s love lives. That is enough for us. We can brood over the ‘how.’ We cannot change the ‘that.’

"But if God lives, then so too love lives, in spite of the cross – then we don’t live in sin, then God has indeed forgiven us. He has declared himself to Jesus, but Jesus has declared himself to us. If Jesus lives then our faith gains new meaning. Then we are the most blessed of human beings. A Yes of God to our guilty humanity, a new meaning for all our doing – that is Easter."

Not being deserted by God – but being full of God, not humans and their titanic victory over Godhood, but God and his mighty victory over humankind, over death and sin and indignation – that is Easter.”


“Christ did not come into the world that we might understand him, but that we might cling to him, that we might simply let ourselves be swept away by him into the immense event of the resurrection”

Thomas Merton (He is risen):
“The risen life is not easy; it is also a dying life. The presence of the Resurrection in our lives means the presence of the Cross, for we do not rise with Christ unless we also first die with him. It is by the cross that we enter the dynamism of creative transformation, the dynamism of resurrection and renewal, the dynamism of love.”

N. T. Wright (Simply Christian):
“If Easter makes any sense at all, it makes sense within something much more like the classic Jewish worldview: heaven and earth are neither the same thing, nor a long way removed from one another, but they overlap and interlock mysteriously in a number of ways; and the God who made both heaven and earth is at work from within the world as well as from without, sharing the pain of the world – indeed, taking its full weight upon his own shoulders. From this point of view, as the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again, God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus does not leave us passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.”

More on the significance of Resurrection here and here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Click, Click, Click, Click

A Good Friday Sermon

In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy commissioned its first nuclear powered submarine with the ability to launch nuclear missiles. The K-19 set out from port on its first maneuvers to send a message that, just as the United States had nuclear submarines that could threaten the Soviet Union, the threat was now mutual. After testing their missiles, disaster struck. The nuclear reactor developed a leak in its coolant system and began to overheat. As the reactor continued to heat up so did the possibility of an explosion. The leak also began to send toxic radiation throughout the submarine. The men on the K-19 were trapped. They were all quickly becoming contaminated with a potentially lethal dose of radiation. You can see a version of this story in the movie K-19, The Widow Maker.

Our world, like the K-19, has a toxic leak at its heart. Our world is contaminated. The radiation of Sin and Death, of violence and suffering permeates this world. And, whether we like to admit it or not, it permeates each of us. We are contaminated. What’s even harder for us to admit is that many of our actions and thoughts contribute to the contamination. The leaking reactor at the heart of the world contaminates everything. The reactor of our own hearts is contaminated. Like the crew on the K-19 we are trapped, unable to escape the toxic contamination.

Into this world comes one who is not contaminated. Jesus enters into the world and acts as a sort of holy Geiger Counter setting off a click, click, click as he encounters the contamination radiating from Sin and Death.

Judas, a trusted friend and disciple, comes to him in the darkness. Perhaps it was greed. Perhaps it was disillusionment. Perhaps it as an impatient attempt to force Jesus’ hand and bring about the kingdom as Judas envisioned it. In any event, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. And with that lip service, the Geiger Counter goes click, click, click, click.

By most standards the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, were probably decent enough men, trying to maintain as much independence for their nation as they could while appeasing the occupying Romans and forestalling the wrath of the empire. But Caiaphas was the one who had counseled that it was “better to have one person die for the people.” Jesus was just “collateral damage” in the struggle to preserve the nation’s precarious security. There is a logic to his thinking. It is reasoning with which we have become familiar. But the thinking is contaminated. And again we hear, click, click, click, click.

Peter, the “Rock”, cracks under pressure and lies to avoid being associated with the one who had called him and whom he had followed. He denies Jesus not once but thrice and upon the third denial hears the rooster crow click, click, click, click.

Pilate cynically asks the one who is Truth, “What is truth?” Unable or unwilling to accept the truth and the changes that must follow acceptence, Pilate, who claims the power to free or to crucify, hands an innocent man over to be crucified while seeking to remain free of the guilt. But he cannot escape the click, click, click, click measuring the contamination of his actions.

One way or another, each of the characters that Jesus encounters in the passion narrative (excepting only Mary and the other women, along with the disciple Jesus loved) demonstrates his contamination by the radiation of Sin and Death. Each alone and all together act out of fear, pride, and disbelief leading to betrayal, denial, desertion, deceit, collaboration, and the justification of violence.

In one sense, little has changed. We live in a world that still radiates Sin and Death. And, one way or another, through things done and things left undone, we demonstrate our own contamination. Called to love God and neighbor, we too often deny, betray, and desert both. But that is not the whole story.

If all we could say was that Jesus came into the world to reveal and measure the contamination of Sin, if he merely left us with nothing but the echo of the click, click, click, click; we would still be trapped and lost. If all he said was “Listen to the click, click, click, click and stop participating in your own contamination and that of others,” we would still be trapped and lost. But he has done more. He has sacrificed himself to begin the decontamination.

As the disaster on the K-19 worsened, levels of radiation in the submarine rose along with the expectation that the overheating reactor would explode if nothing was done. Seven crewmen volunteered to work in shifts in the high-radiation area to create a new coolant system for the reactor. In doing so they absorbed lethal doses of radiation. All seven died. It was an heroic sacrifice that saved most of the rest of the crew and prevented an explosion that would have sunk the submarine.

I wonder if the sacrifice of Jesus which we commemorate today might be understood similarly. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the lethal dose of Sin and Death, repaired the leak, and began the decontamination of the world. Today we who are now in Christ celebrate our deliverance and decontamination. As with the K-19 after the repair, we still suffer the effects of residual radiation. But Sin and Death were contained on a Friday afternoon nearly 2,000 years ago and the decontamination through forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing began. And that was a Good Friday indeed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Whose Feet Will You Wash?

Maundy Thursday is a reminder that our Lord’s call to communion with himself is inseparable from our communion with one another as members of his body. Basil the Great understood this and warned in his monastic Rule against seeking communion with God outside of community:

How shall you show humility, if you have no one in comparison with whom to show yourself humble? How shall you show compassion if you cut yourself off from the fellowship of the many? How can you exercise yourself in patience, if no one contradicts your wishes? If you think the teaching of the Holy Scripture is sufficient to correct your character, you are like a person who learns the theory of carpentry but never makes anything.

The Lord, because of his great love of humanity, was not content only with teaching the word, but, so that he might accurately and clearly give us an example of humility in the perfection of love, he girded himself and washed the feet of the disciples in person. [If you neglect life in the community] whose feet will you wash? Who will you care for? In comparison to whom will you be last?

A Life Pleasing to God, The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil by Augustine Holmes OSB, Cistercian Publications, WMU Station, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 12000, p. 142