Praise God

If you’re here this morning feeling triumphant and joyous and free because of the Supreme Court’s decisions this past week, praise God.

If you’re here this morning feeling queasy and uncertain because of the Supreme Court’s decisions, or because of hate that’s been manifested in our state and even across the street in the last few weeks, praise God.

If you feel like finally, finally, God is answering your prayers, praise God.

If you feel like, in light of this week, God must be taking a nap, praise God.

I do truly pray that there are people in these pews today of all those convictions, because there is merit in all those convictions, and familial love and diversity is a hallmark of the Kingdom of God.

God doesn’t look the way that any of us think he does. God doesn’t act the way any of us suppose he should. God doesn’t look like you. God doesn’t look like me.

God looks like Jesus Christ.

God is Jesus Christ.

Praise God, our Lord Jesus Christ.

And you know what today is? Continue reading

What’s Scripture got to do with it?

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_019The Resurrection: In Accordance with The Scriptures (part of a sermons series with the Rev. Canon Dane Boston)

This afternoon, in continuing the series begun so brilliantly by my colleague last week as Dane preached on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, I will focus on how Jesus’ resurrection is Scriptural. Continue reading

Prophet Daniel & the Leather Oxfords – a sermon.

In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.

Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.

In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.

Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.

Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.

How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it.   I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.

How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.

It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.

We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?

It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.

This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.

My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.

No Longer a Trickster – Sermon

In honor of the day for tricksters; First preached at Christ Church, Cooperstown NY, around October 2010.

“Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’” Genesis 32:28

Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight. My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.
When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock. In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.” This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories. The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game. A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time. In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother. Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important. After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town. That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.
No wonder Jacob was so nervous. He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man. Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong. This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself. The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act. A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one. In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people. We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.
Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now. In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling. We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God. This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules. Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again. This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles. We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others. These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.
In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name. What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called. In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.” The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face. For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching. They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing. Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”” Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction. As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed. Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again. Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past. Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.
Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.

“It was God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18

Epistle: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the 1950’s, there was a missionary named Jim Elliot who felt called by God to go to Ecuador to minister to native peoples there.  Along with his team, he started to build relationships with a particularly remote tribe—first dropping gifts from their missionary plane, then working toward introducing themselves, continuing to clear the way with more presents to show their goodwill.  Finally delegations from each group met.  On this big day, Jim took a photo from his pocket to show the tribespeople that the missionaries were friends with a member of their tribe.

Having never seen a photograph, they assumed that Jim had eaten brother, since he had taken the likeness of this person out of his body to show them.  They murdered Jim and his companions immediately.

I wonder if we sometimes make the opposite mistake about Jesus.  I wonder if we take Jesus to be just a picture of God—only an image or likeness, but not really God himself.  They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but if I had my choice I’d take the thousand words every time—there’s so much more to learn from studying a description of someone than reducing a whole person to a single photograph.

Our Gospel passage today is bursting with poetic description of God; it harkens to another description of God elsewhere.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That description goes on to reveal that God created humanity “in God’s image”—which means that we ourselves are a sort of photo in some way—and when God created humanity, he furnished a place for his people to live and provided for their every need.  You know this story—here’s where the montage of Adam and Eve frolicking and eating and naming animals fits in—and then something goes wrong.  (you can imagine the sound of  a pin dragging against vinyl) Adam and Eve decide that God may have been lying to them after all, and they test the truth God had told them—whether it really did matter so much how they lived.

Now we really learn something about God: that evening, arriving for their daily walk, God calls out for his companions, his cherished creatures.  They’re hiding—they know they shouldn’t have tested God and shouldn’t have doubted that God was telling the truth, but they really would rather not face up to it.

We’re not that different, are we?  Instead of recognizing our crookedness, we bury it and move on.  I read a story this week of a professor who, when his desk got too full of letters to be answered and tasks to complete, he’d spread out an edition of the New York Times and then start over as if his desk was clean.  We paper over our sins, too, instead of owning up to them before God.

On that evening, God knew exactly what had happened and where his creatures were; he could have come rushing in, screaming, demanding that they leave immediately, as if he was a righteous landlord.  But that’s not the description of God that we’re shown here at the very beginning of Scripture.

Scripture begins with a God that is so full of love that he dreams each of us up out of nothing.  Then, when each of us, as we all do, decides to test out whether God is really telling the truth, he gently asks what it is that we’re doing—giving us a chance to tell him the truth and to own up to our schemes.  We grab a New York Times, or a fig leaf, to try to cover up the mess we’ve made, even though God can already see the mess.  The God who’s described here in the pages of Genesis is the same one described in the first verses of the Gospel of John—the God full of grace and full of truth.

Being full of grace and truth sounds lovely, but I argue this morning that it makes God very off-putting.  That same professor didn’t cover his desk with a newspaper just once, but did it habitually—when he finally died, they dug down many layers of newsprint, finding all sorts of unpaid invoices, unanswered inquiries, and unfinished assignments.  Can you imagine the horror he might have felt if this practice had been discovered and challenged while he was alive?  God knows all the layers of newsprint we’ve used to paper up our lives.  Even when I’ve lost count of the path and number of lies I’ve used to cover up various deeds—done and left undone—God knows each and every one.  God is full of truth, and that sounds kind of terrible.

Thomas Keating, a 20th century monk, says that when it starts to dawn on us just how many layers of deception we’ve built our lives on, we think we’re getting worse, but truly, we’re just realizing how bad off we always were, and that, he says, is an enormous grace.

We look up at God from the bottom of our crumpled-paper and sticky-sin lives, and he reaches down and scoops us up in his hand, brushing away the debris.  This is grace.  While truth is hard, I think grace might be harder.  The law, our epistle says, was our disciplinarian before Christ came.  The law, or rule-following, lets me continually hit myself against a wall when I do something wrong.  I punish myself and pay for the wrong I’ve committed.  All the time, I’m trying to be dependent only on myself.

This isn’t how we were made to be, though.  We were made to be in the midst of God’s grace and truth.  God’s grace is the hand that comes down to the cave of our sin and scoops us up and out of it—we don’t have to run ourselves against a wall, we don’t have to sit in the dog house for months on end; we’re forgiven.  The hard part is to accept God’s grace, to live as if we are truly forgiven, not punishing ourselves any more, but acknowledging honestly the shortcomings we suffer.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by W.H. Auden:

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —

Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school.  There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off.

 

God is full of truth—he knows what’s under your newspaper.  God is full of grace—he brushes away all the debris by his death on the cross and resurrection.

Will you accept his hand?