Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CampFAB 2010

In June 2010, St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn held its second annual CampFAB (Fine Arts & Bible). It is our homegrown version of VBS. We have Bible lessons every day. But we also want to celebrate the beauty and joy of creativity. So, besides the Bible lessons, the campers (age 4 - 12) sang, danced, wrote stories, learned improv acting, painted, did photography and videography, etc. CampFAB is mainly staffed by members of St. Barnabas. This year's theme was Life on the Vine. Here is the video the kids put together under the direction of Scott Wetle:

From the Media Center of the Diocese of Chicago web site.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas on Naming God

In yesterday's sermon, I quoted Robert Jenson's "definition" of what Christians mean when we use the word "God." This morning, I came across this fine essay by Stanley Hauerwas which he begins with that same quote. It is at the Religion and Ethics page Australian Broadcast Company's web site.

Here it is:

"God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt." This is the hallmark sentence of Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology. It is an elegantly simple but dauntingly deep sentence, which took Jenson a lifetime of theological reflection to write.

To write such a sentence requires that we discipline our presumption that we know what we are saying when we say the word "God." For it turns out that we are most likely to take God's name in vain when we assume we know what we are saying when we say "God."

Indeed, one of the ironies of the recent spate of books defending atheism is the confidence these "new atheists" seem to have in knowing which God it is they are sure does not exist. They have forgotten that one of the crimes of which Romans accused Christians - a crime whose punishment was often death - was that Christians were atheists.

The Romans weren't being unreasonable. All they wanted was for the Christians to acknowledge there were many gods, but Christians were determined atheists. Christians were atheist because they assumed the primary problem was not atheism but idolatry. Idolatry, moreover, has everything to do with thinking that you know God's name.

In The City of God, Augustine even argues that the reason the Roman Empire had fallen on hard times was because the Romans worshiped corrupt gods. He assumed rightly that there is a direct correlation between the worship of God, the character of our lives and politics.

Augustine argues, therefore, Rome fell because the people of Rome lived immoral lives by emulating the immorality of their gods. Needless to say, Augustine's account of idolatry was not well-received by the Romans themselves.

So depending on which god or gods the new atheists think they are denying, they might discover that Christians are not unsympathetic with their atheism.

For example, it should not be surprising that in a culture which inscribes its money with "In God We Trust," atheists might be led to think it is interesting - and perhaps even useful - to deny god exists. It does not seem to occur to atheists, however, that the vague god which some seem to confuse with trust in our money cannot be the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

This is but a reminder that the word "god" can be very misleading, particularly for those who worship the One who raised Jesus from the dead and Israel from Egypt. For the word "god" can invite us to confuse the One who raised Jesus from the dead with the general designation "god" used to describe the assumption that something had to start it all.

Those who assume "god" is the designation we use for naming the assumption that something had to start it all also think that such an assumption implies there has to be more to life than birth, sex, and death. Many who believe in such a "more" often agree with the new atheists that there is little evidence that such a "more" exists, but they nonetheless refuse to deny its possibility.

Moreover, they assume that such a "more" has many names, for to think otherwise is to risk intolerance.

But the Scriptures constantly remind us that naming God matters. For instance, God asks Moses to bring his people, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, out of captivity in Egypt. God - who seems to have been reading Jenson's Systematic Theology - tells Moses that he should tell the Israelites that Moses has been sent to the people of Israel by the God of their ancestors, that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But Moses, who knows the Egyptians well, knows that escaping from Egypt is going to be a risky business. Moses knows that those whom he is asked to rescue will want some assurance that Moses is authorized to undertake the dangerous business of escaping from Egypt.

At the very least those that he has been asked to lead will want to know the name of the One that he serves. So Moses asks God for some identification to which God responds, "Tell them, 'I am who I am has sent Moses to them."

"I am who I am" (or as some have translated, "I will be present to whom I will be present") I suspect was not a reply that pleased Moses. But it has been an unending delight for Christian theologians and philosophers to reflect on the metaphysics of God's existence.

Aquinas, for example, thought that God's response rightly suggests that only in God are existence and essence inseparable. Put in more colloquial terms, this means only God can act without loss. For Christians it is, therefore, never a question about God's existence, but rather what it means for all that is not God to exist.

"I am who I am" may be a helpful metaphysical response, but it is not a name. At best, as philosophers like to say, "I am who I am" is a grammatical remark that suggests God is known by what God does. "I am who I am," therefore, is but another way to say you know all you need to know if you know that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It is as if God is saying to Moses "Tell them not to worry. Just as I have been there for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so I will be there for you." In effect God is saying, you can trust me but you cannot possess me.

We, like the people of Israel, would like to think we get to name God. By naming God we hope to get the kind of God we need, that is, a god after our own likeness. We can make the "more" that must have started it all after our own image.

But God refuses to let the people of Israel - or us - assume that we can name the One who will raise Israel from Egypt. Only God can name God. That, moreover, is what God does.

"God also said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations." God's name is YHWH, but it is a name that Israel could not say.

That God's name could not be said indicates that God's name is a holy reality sharing in God's holiness. To know God's name is to know God. As Karl Barth observes, "'I am that I am' can scarcely mean anything else than just I am He whose name proper no one can repeat is significant enough; but the revealed name itself by its wording is to recall also and precisely the hiddenness of the revealed God."

The burning bush that is not consumed wonderfully displays Barth's point that the very revelation of God, God's unrelenting desire to have us know him, means we must acknowledge that we cannot know God.

Moses could not help but be drawn to the fiery bush. How could the bush be on fire yet not be consumed? He drew near, but the Lord called to Moses - named Moses - out of the burning bush telling him he was on holy ground. He was to remove his sandals and come no closer. Moses did as he was told hiding his face, fearing to look on God.

For if God is God, how could we hope to stand before God? How could we hope to see God face to face, and live? The burning bush was not consumed, but we cannot imagine that confronted by this God we could see God and live.

Israel knew that there was no greater gift than to be given God's name, but that gift was a frightening reality that threatened to consume her. Israel, who would be tempted by the idolatrous presumption she possessed God's name, rightly never forgot she could not say God's name.

Israel could not possess God because God possess Israel.

For Christians, we believe we have been given God's name. We believe we can say the name of God. Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality of God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The fire that burned but did not consume the bush is Jesus Christ. Just as the fire did not consume the bush, so our God has come to us by becoming one of us.

Yet the humanity of the one he became was not replaced or destroyed. Rather our God is incarnate. Our God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There has never been a time that God has not been Trinity.

The God that came to Moses in the burning bush, the God who called Moses to deliver his people, the God who gave Moses his name, is Trinity. Only this God can be very God and very man.

The God we worship is not a vague "more" that exists to make our lives meaningful. The God we worship is not "the biggest thing around." The God we worship is not "something had to start it all." The God we worship is not a God that insures that we will somehow get out of life alive. The God we worship is not a God whose ways correspond to our presumptions about how God should be God.

That God has come near to us in Christ does not mean that God is less than God. God is God and we are not.

Yet we believe that the God we worship has made his name known. We believe we have been given the happy task of making his name known. We believe we can make his name known because the God we worship is nearer to us than we are to ourselves - a frightening reality that gives us life. We believe that in the Eucharist, in the meal of bread and wine, just as Jesus is fully God and fully man, this bread and this wine will, through the work of the Spirit, become for us the body and blood of Christ.

To come to this meal in which bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ is to stand before the burning bush. But we are not told to come no closer. Rather we are invited to eat this body and drink this blood and by so doing we are consumed by what we consume becoming for the world God's burning bush.

By being consumed by the Divine Life we are made God's witnesses so that the world may know the fire, the name, Jesus Christ.

God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt. There is no God but this God.

Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent book is Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010). In 2001 he was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy

Following up on the last post and looking at the Gospel lesson for this Sunday about Lazarus and the Rich Man, I am reminded how seriously the early church took our responsibility to take care of the poor as an extension of its liturgy.

Liturgy (leitourgia) originally referred to work on behalf of the public, e.g., the wealthy would pay for public works and public religious festivals. In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as performing a leitourgia: “Christ has obtained a ministry [the Greek word is leitourgia - liturgy] which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant it mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (Heb. 8:6) Christ’s life of obedience, death on the cross, and resurrection is the Christian liturgy. It is public work done for the benefit of the people. The early church adopted the word to refer to its worship understood as participating in the one liturgy of Jesus.

But that worship was not understood as only what happened at church on Sunday morning. In her book, The Hungry are Dying, Bishops and Beggars in Roman Cappadocia, Susan R. Holman shows that in the early church,
"Almsgiving is regarded early as a redemptive leitourgia [liturgy]." p. 54.

Holman refers to Basil the Great who assures his audience that almsgiving is
the one action that would open to you the doors of heaven . . . . Do you realize that in giving your gold, your money, your fields, that is to say rocks and earth, you acquire life eternal? . . . . I know many who fast, pray, mourn and practice admirably the gratuitous forms of piety, but they do not give an obol to the outcasts. What good do the other virtues do them? They will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. p.108

Basil also asserted that, "as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, so we ourselves if we remember the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating." p. 83

Here are three quotes from John Chrysostom's Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, which can be found in On Wealth and Poverty:

[The Lord]settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. "I sent", he says, "the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution." p. 48

Referring to a different parable (Luke 12:15-21) with a similar point, Chrysostom said,
When his [the rich man's] harvest was abundant, he said to himself, 'What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build larger ones.' There is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth he took down his barns; for the safe barns are not walls, but the stomachs of the poor. p. 34

Like a lot of the early church preachers and theologians, Chrysostom asserted that our wealth is not our own:
Remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth for the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their way of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. p. 55

And here are some related quotes from the early church for which I unfortunately do not have citations:

"The price of the kingdom is the food you give to the poor who need it." - Leo the Great

"I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use be common. It is absurd and disgraceful for one to live magnificently and luxuriously when so many are hungry." - Clement of Alexandria

"Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away." - Gregory the Great

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Make Friends for Yourselves

A brief homily on Luke 16: 1 – 13

Jesus' parable in this morning’s gospel is notoriously one of the more difficult to understand. Is he commending dishonesty? Is he just talking about forgiveness? Just what is Jesus saying in this parable?

First of all, a word about parables. Parables are not one thing. “Parable” is a broad category. All parables use metaphor to mess with your imagination to reorient it toward Jesus and the kingdom of God. Some of them are allegories in which one thing stands for another. Others are more like stories with a moral. Others are similar to proverbs. Still others are like riddles, or even like Zen koans, that leave you pondering. Many, including today’s, have an element of humor. And some are more like a joke in which the point is not so much the set-up as it is the punch line.

The parable before us today is of the last variety. It is like a joke with a punch line. The story itself is not really the point. People get hung up when they try to turn it into an allegory in which "the rich man" represents someone and "the manager" represents someone else, etc. It is not that kind of parable. People also get hung up trying to figure out why Jesus seems to commend this scoundrel of a manager as morally exemplary. But, it is not that kind of parable. The story itself is just a somewhat ridiculous and humorous set-up for the punch line. And the punch line packs quite a punch.

And what is the punch line? It comes in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “ I told you it packed a punch. The manager dealt shrewdly with what he had in a worldly way. If we are children of light, we will deal wisely with what we have to make friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes. What does that mean?

1.Dishonest wealth: I think the King James Version has it better when it translates the adjective as “unrighteous” rather than “dishonest”. We have come to think of money and wealth as a good thing or at least morally neutral. But, it has not always been so. Jesus, and a broad and long tradition following him, sees money with great ambivalence. It has spiritual power and that power is dangerous. You cannot have much of it without that spirit starting to work on your soul. So, the best thing to do is have as little has you can. So, what to do with it?

2. Make friends: It is deep in the tradition that giving alms to the poor is basic to faithfulness. Give and give and give. It is not only a faithful thing to do. It might just be salvific.

3. They may welcome you into the eternal homes: Shaped as we are by the Reformation, we are used to thinking that all you need is faith. But, it is hard to pay attention to Jesus (or to Paul for that matter) and come to the conclusion that it does not matter what we actually do. And the early church was clear that what we do matters and matters eternally. Giving alms to the poor is one of the things that matter. You all know I am big on grace. Grace is indeed the fundamental reality for Christians. But, Jesus will not allow us the complacency of cheap grace. Who will welcome us to our heavenly homes? The poor whom God loves. We would do well to make friends with them now.

Everything before verse 9 is set-up for that discomforting punch line. Everything after is an elaboration of the point.

Brothers and Sisters, let us make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome us into the eternal homes.


I did not include this in Sunday’s sermon, because I’ve shared it at St. Barnabas several times before. It is a story attributed to John the Merciful (early 7th century). It makes the point well:

There was a certain man, Peter Telenearius, who, in order to get rid of the poor, threw rocks at them. One day when he was again surrounded by them, he had no stone handy, so he grabbed a loaf of bread and threw it at the head of one of them. Later he became sick and saw a vision in which his deeds were being weighed in the balance of divine justice. All his sins were on one side of the balance and on the other side was the loaf of bread thrown at the head of the poor. It had become acceptable to Jesus Christ as an act of mercy.

Of course, alms alone are not enough. We must also address the moral and systemic issues that cause too many to be poor. But that must never let us off the hook of giving of our own wealth for the sake of the poor. And for the sake of our own souls.

[Addendum: Here is a follow-up post on Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Holy Cross

Some thoughts and quotes evoked on the Feast of the Holy Cross:

So much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy or the projection of our own prejudices onto the cosmos. A lot of rhetoric about god sounds like an "opiate of the people" as Karl Marx famously charged. As such, it is ephemeral and hard to hold onto.

But, then there is the cross. If, as Christians profess, God, in some mysterious way, hung on a particular cross in a particular time and a particular place, there is something to hold onto. The idea that the One at the heart of it all - the creator and sustainer of all things - entered into the physical reality of sin, suffering, and death and addressed that reality on the cross is what creates and sustains my ability to believe in God at all. The cross anchors me. It keeps my faith from becoming detached from the hard realities of this life. It also anchors God in the sense that it gives God a basic definition that challenges all expressions of faith as flights of fancy. Whatever else we might say about God, if it neglects the reality of the cross, it is not really God we are talking about.

Collect for the Feast of the Holy Cross:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389):
If the death of Christ was a ransom paid to the Father, the question that arises is for what reason? We were not held captive by the Father. And anyway, why should the blood of his only Son be pleasing to the Father who once refused to accept Isaac when Abraham his father offered him as a burnt offering, and instead was pleased to accept the sacrifice of a ram?

Surely it is evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice of Christ, not because he demands it, still less because he feels some need of it, but in order to carry forward his own purposes for the world. Humanity had to be brought back to life by the humanity of God. We had to be summoned to life by his Son.

Let the rest be adored in silence.

John of Farne (1320–1371):
Study then, mortal, to know Christ: to learn your Savior. His body hanging on the cross, is a book, opened before your eyes. The words of this book are Christ's actions, as well as his suffering and passion, for everything that he did serves for our instruction. His wounds are the letters or characters, the five chief wounds being the five vowels and the others the consonants of your book. . . .

So eat this book which in your mouth and understanding shall be sweet, but which will make your belly bitter, that is to say your memory, because he that increases knowledge increases sorrow too.

Thomas Traherne (1637-1674):
The Cross is the abyss of all wonders, the centre of desire, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the palace of sorrows; the root of happiness, and the gate of Heaven.

The Cross of Christ is the Jacob’s ladder by which we ascend to the highest heavens.

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892):
The world's one and only remedy is the cross.

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930):
The Cross, the Cross
Goes deeper than we know,
Deeper into life;
Right to the marrow
And through the bone

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945):
The cross destroyed the equation religion equals happiness.

Paul Claudel (1868-1955):
There is not a pebble on the road, not a thorn in the hedge, on which he has not left a drop of his blood or a shred of his flesh.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957):
Continuing a short series of verse on Christ: Hard it is, very hard, To travel up the slow and stony road To Calvary, to redeem mankind; far better To make but one resplendent miracle, Lean through the cloud, lift the right hand of power And with a sudden lightning smite the world perfect. Yet this was not God's way, Who had the power, But set it by, choosing the cross, the thorn, The sorrowful wounds. Something there is, perhaps, That power destroys in passing, something supreme, To whose great value in the eyes of God That cross, that thorn, and those five wounds bear witness

Karl Barth (1886-1968):
God earns the right to be God in this world on the cross.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007):
For Jesus, at-one-ment was not only being at-one with the glory of the stars, or the first daffodil in the spring, or a baby’s laugh. He was also at-one with all the pain and suffering that ever was, is, or will be. On the cross Jesus was at-one with the young boy with cancer, the young mother hemorrhaging, the raped girl... We can withdraw, even in our prayers, from the intensity of suffering. Jesus, on the cross, experienced it all. When I touch the small cross I wear, this, then, is the meaning of the symbol.

Collect from Morning Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 101:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Preview of Sudan Video

The Diocese of Chicago's Renk Media Team has produced an excellent video on its recent trip to Sudan. The following preview has just become available. I recognize several people from my two trips to the Diocese of Renk. Particular friends are Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, formerly bishop of Renk and current Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan; Bishop Joseph Garang Atem, bishop of Renk; The Very Rev. Martha Deng Naihl, Dean of St. Matthew Cathedral; and Toby Ressen (Toby John), pastor of St. Barnaba, Maban, sister parish of St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn. There are scenes of Toby by and in the church building St. Barnabas funded. We have also, just this summer, funded the digging of a well in Maban. St. Barnabas also provides for Toby Ressen's salary. It is a privilege to be a part of what they are all doing in the Sudan to bear witness to the good news of God's reconciling love in Jesus Christ. It has helped to focus our mission at St. Barnabas in Glen Ellyn.

[You might have to double-click the video to get the full screen]

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Litany for the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend

We don't typically do much at St. Barnabas to mark observances on the secular calendar. But, this year, for Labor Day Sunday, we decided to acknowledge the work we do. We ran the following announcement in the Sunday bulletin and in our weekly electronic parish newsletter, The St. Barnabas Encourager:

On Sunday, September 5 (Labor Day weekend), we will pray a litany and blessing on our work. You are encouraged to bring with you to church some tangible symbol of the work you do. We will hold these up as we pray God’s blessing on our respective vocations. Be creative. If you can think of nothing tangible, bring a picture from a magazine or something. If you are retired, bring a symbol of your vocation before you retired or a symbol of your retirement. If you are a student, bring some representation of that or of the vocation you hope to enter upon completion of your studies. If you are unemployed, we will pray for employment. Still, you can bring a symbol of what you have done or hope to do. In our respective vocations, we participate in creation and anticipate the restoration of all things. Let us offer them as a thank offering to God.

Here is the litany I wrote for the occasion:

Litany for the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend:

Celebrant: Heavenly Father, you created all that is and call us to work and care for it.
ALL: Bless the work of our hands and hearts as we create in our several ways.

Celebrant: Word of God, you became flesh to reconcile and restore all things.
ALL: Bless the work of our hands and hearts as we heal and repair what is broken.

Celebrant: Holy Spirit, you teach us all things and empower us to serve.
ALL: Bless the work of our hands and hearts as we teach and serve others.

Celebrant: Holy Trinity, one God in Three Persons:
ALL: Remind us that we live by the labor of one another.

Celebrant: For all those who work:
ALL: Bless the work of our hands and hearts.

Celebrant: For those who are unemployed or underemployed:
ALL: Lead us to fruitful employment.

Celebrant: For those who are overworked or underpaid:
ALL: Lead us to sabbath rest and justice.

Celebrant: For those who balance job commitments with the needs of their families:
ALL: Grant us wisdom and patience.

Celebrant: For those who are retired from regular work:
ALL: Grant us rest from our labor and lead us to fruitful endeavors.

(The people raise the symbols of their vocations or an open hand for blessing as the celebrant sprinkles the congregation using the aspergillum.)

ALL: Loving God, in sending your Son you gave us an example to love one another as he loved us and through your Spirit you have given us each gifts by which we can serve you and one another. Bless these symbols of our several vocations that our labor may be for the sake of your kingdom. Amen

It went well and it was fun to see what people brought to represent their various vocations.