The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"I'm good enough... I'm smart enough..."

30 August 2009
Proper 17B
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

So, I’ve been thinking… This week – for a change – I thought we might talk about bread. ☺

In case you haven’t been following things, for the past five weeks, the Gospel lessons have been all about bread. Well, maybe not all about bread, but there’s been quite a lot of bread talk. It all started with the feeding of the five thousand and moved on from there into four weeks of reflecting and expanding on that experience through the various “I am the bread of life” teachings.

This week, for the first time in more than a month, we have a Gospel lesson that makes no mention whatsoever of bread. But like all great teachings, the lesson remains, even after the words have faded into memory.

Though the Gospel this week is not all about bread, the story continues in the days following the feeding of the five thousand. We return to the story in the Gospel of Mark. Just as the feeding miracle and its accompanying teachings remain fresh in our minds; how much more must they have lingered in the thoughts of the disciples?

At this point in the story, the disciples are gathered around Jesus and they are taking a meal. Jesus had told them that the bread of the earth would fail to sustain them forever – so far, his teaching was holding true.

When the Jewish leaders saw their manner of dining, they were scandalized. So much so, that they confronted Jesus on his failure to adhere to the ancient teachings of the faith once received.

Depending on your level of experience with the so-called orthodox or ‘right-thinking’ proponents of practically any faith tradition, you might be beginning to see a fairly familiar pattern emerging.

One of the lessons that I always try to impart whenever I’m teaching young people is this: whenever you encounter someone who claims to have a handle on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – particularly with regard to matters of faith – you can almost guarantee that they’re wrong. Particularly with matters of faith! It is our job, as faithful people, to long and strive for an ever-deeper understanding of the heart of God. But invariably, the moment we think we’ve reached that goal is one of the moments when we are farthest from it.

This is what the Pharisees were guilty of: in their steadfast assurance of their knowledge of the heart of God, they judged Jesus and the disciples for behaving in a way to its contrary.

One of my stumbling blocks in reflecting on this story was my 21st century, germaphobic mindset. Who among us hasn’t instructed a child to wash up before dinner? But that wasn’t the complaint of these 1st century Pharisees. They knew nothing of germs and, as such, were not the least bit concerned about that. Instead, their complaint was that Jesus and the disciples had failed to conduct themselves in compliance with the demands for propriety by the religious authorities. It was not so much that they were dirty, but that they were unclean. They were eating with ‘unsanctified’ hands.

Like I said: know-it-alls almost always don’t. And their complaints tend to follow a specific pattern. Part of that pattern is that their lack of knowledge is eventually revealed.

For the previous five weeks, it hasn’t really been “all about bread”. The real discussion was more about a kind of dualism between the spirit and the flesh – between the stuff of God and the stuff of the world.

Jesus taught about the insufficiency of the material world to meet our spiritual needs. It might have been easy, over these past weeks, to declare that earthly things are inherently evil because they detract from the spirit. But if you listened carefully, you notice that Jesus never said that. Instead, he teaches something more radical altogether. Jesus says that not only is the stuff of the material world not evil, it isn’t even capable of being evil.

The Pharisees had taught that holiness in the sight of God required ritual actions of purity – washing away and abstaining from certain things of the world to restore individuals in the sight of God. But Jesus said ‘no’. Evil cannot come from the stuff of the world – the stuff we put into our mouths or that touches our bodies. It just isn’t that powerful. Instead, evil comes from within our hearts. We have the power to create evil, just as we have the power to create good. The stuff of the world has no power to create – good or evil.

The frightening part of this lesson is that, too often, the evil that we face is a product of our own doing or not doing. Even if not as individuals, we as a society can be the cause of great evil. And when evil loses this mysterious quality, there’s no one left to blame it on. We just have to bear the responsibility for the evil we have done or for that, which was done on our behalf.

But there are two sides to that coin. The truth is not just that we are capable of evil, but that we are capable of good. We don’t need to perform endless rituals to make ourselves good enough for God. We are good enough.

I remember the old Saturday Night Live sketch by Al Franken where the man stares into a mirror and repeats to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me!”

Part of the humor behind that sketch was that the character so clearly didn’t believe it. He sat before his mirror each day trying to will that statement into some truth that he could believe in.

Christ tells us that it is our truth. We are good enough. Not in the sense of some silly mantra to be repeated day after day, but in a deep, ontological sense. In the very depths of our being – somewhere even beneath our bones – we are good enough. No amount of washing can make us any purer in the sight of God. We don’t need the rituals to make us good enough for God. We just are.

It’s not about the bread.

It’s not even about the bread and the wine of the Holy Eucharist.

It’s about the Christ that is present in our communion.

It’s about being good enough. Even in the midst of our failure. We are good enough. Not because of any length to which we go to atone. Not because we have said so with enough assurance.

We are good enough because God has declared it so. Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Best argument for Health Insurance Reform

This is the simplest, easiest argument I've seen yet for Health Insurance Reform to date.

So let's get on that, already!

Hat tip to Ann Fontaine for sharing this!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

S.M.A.R.T. goals and the truth behind failure

23 August 2009
Proper 16B
John 6:56-69

In the name of God, who is our living, our dying, and our life. Amen.

I failed out of college.

When I was 17 years old and just out of high school, I began my first attempt at college. It was a great time. And I learned a lot. I learned about late night drives out in the country with my friends. I learned about fraternity parties. I learned about beer.

I was not, however, as successful learning about things like going to classes or studying or writing papers.

I failed.

If you look at my transcripts you can see it as plain as day. I failed. It’s right there in black and white.

In the corporate world, people often talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals. These are goals that are:

and Timely.

Smart. And when my first attempt at college is evaluated as a series of S.M.A.R.T. goals, it was a clear failure.

It wasn’t for a lack of intelligence or aptitude. I could offer a lot of excuses. I was too young. I wasn’t ready. I was engaged in an unexpected period of self-examination in my life that, in the end, proved distracting for me. But when looking at life through “S.M.A.R.T.-colored” glasses, none of that matters. All that matters is that I failed to achieve the specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely goals that had been set.

But life isn’t always as clear as a set of S.M.A.R.T. goals. While it is true that I was evaluated as having failed much of that first semester of college; and while it is true that I was politely asked not to return to that esteemed institution for a second semester; I don’t count the experience as a failure. It was in that failed semester that I had my first exposure to the academic discipline of religious study. Though I failed the class, I still learned a lot of content that I still use today. And even more significantly, it awakened in me an interest that I had no way of knowing was there. It propelled me further down the path to the ways that God is calling me to live.

In that semester of failure – and in the period that followed it – I did a lot of growing up. So was it really a failure?

In the evaluative tools of the world: it certainly was. In the scope of my life: I don’t think so. It was hugely successful in ways that are not specific or measurable. And I couldn’t have planned that kind of success through any series of attainable or realistic steps.

Life just isn’t always neat enough for that.

So now, for the fifth week in a row, we’re talking about bread. It all started back in July with the story of the feeding of the five thousand – certainly one of the ‘top 40’ greatest hits of biblical literature. But for these four weeks that have followed, we’ve looked a little deeper at what happened next. In the real time of Jesus’ life, we’re probably only talking about the events and conversations of a few days. But we needed to spend some time digesting those few days so that we could begin let the big picture surrounding that feeding miracle take shape and come into focus.

What would have been the point of the feeding miracle if we had not heard the teaching that followed? What would have been the point of the bread if Jesus had not used that opportunity to reveal a piece of what is true: “You have eaten bread, but I am the life-giving bread. That is what you really hunger for.”

The crowds and the bread are certainly amazing. But if that’s all we see in this story, we’re missing a huge part of it.

It’s probably easier to focus on the crowds and the bread. That’s the eye-catching part of the story. In terms of S.M.A.R.T. goals, that’s the successful part of the story. But it’s certainly not the whole story, and not even the most important part of the story.

To begin to see the big picture of the importance of Christ walking among us, we have to hear the teachings of Jesus. Those who heard these revolutionary teachings probably said it best: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Five weeks ago those five thousand who were fed by the bread were about to take Jesus by force to make him their king. But little by little, as they followed him and got a clearer picture of who he was and what he was about, the crowds began to disperse. The bread was wonderful. It satisfied the temporal needs of the people. But the teachings were a little tough to swallow.

On the basis of the kinds of S.M.A.R.T. goals that are encouraged in churches today – budgets, pledges, membership, average Sunday attendance – when thought of in those terms, Jesus failed. His congregation went from 5,000 to 12 in just a few days. Does that mean he was a failure?

I’ve noticed over the past few years that parents of young people who are about to go off to college tend to be comforted by my story of failure. It’s a story of failure that turned out not to be such a failure. Everyone would, of course, still prefer that their children not have a path like mine. Other paths can be a lot easier and often just as fruitful. But I think parents are comforted by my story because it reminds them that there are other paths to success. Sometimes even paths that are puckered with problems. But they are no less successful.

All of our lives have problems. We have all failed in small and not-so-small ways. And we all would be wise to learn about other ways of evaluating success. It can be helpful if goals are S.M.A.R.T., but not all achievements are.

This is one of the lessons we’ve learned in these five weeks. If we’d only heard about the feeding of the five thousand, we would have missed the “difficult teaching”. We would have missed the chance to put ourselves – if only a bit – into the minds of the people that Jesus taught. We would have missed this chance to imagine how we might have reacted without the two-thousand-year filter of our faith and tradition to guide us. Would we have joined the thousands who left? Would we have joined the dozen who stayed? In a sense we don’t have to imagine. We join the thousands who left every time we remember only the bread. We take the miracle and we move on – not taking in the difficult teaching. It’s bread, but it’s not about bread.

Perhaps most importantly, if we had not had these weeks to live into the difficult teaching, we would have missed this chance to stand in awe of a God who speaks truth in the face of worldly failure.

This is our model. It’s the difference between the bread of the world and the bread of life. Jesus could have just kept performing miracles that would have amounted to little more than magic tricks: healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the crowds. These things put us in touch with our lives, but not our life. They give us what is needed for living, but they are not life-giving.

The teachings of our faith are difficult.

The goals of our faith are not S.M.A.R.T.

But our faith is life-giving. It is to our souls like bread is to our bodies.

Christ is our bread. Amen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New MIKA is coming!

Here's the newest single from MIKA - from his upcoming album, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much"

I'm sold!

Literally! I pre-ordered the album on iTunes. You can, too, by clicking here.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bread alone?

16 August 2009
Proper 15B
John 6:51-58

In the name of God. Amen.

The old adage is that a person cannot live on bread alone. I’m beginning to think that the compilers of our lectionary did not agree! This is the fourth out of five weeks in which the primary metaphor in the Gospel lesson is about bread.

It began three weeks ago. The crowds following Jesus had earthly needs – perhaps the most basic of earthly needs: they were hungry. They were gathered in a field and their resources were scarce. But somehow, Jesus gave them their fill. Then, after their immediate needs had been met, the people clamored around him. He retreated from them, but they continued to follow him.

So in the lesson that we heard two weeks ago, he began to teach.

He knew that the crowds were following him because he had fed them with bread. But he also knew that they needed something more. They could not live – at least not really live – on bread alone.

They had come to him in search of bread, so he met them where they were. He taught them about bread. They had eaten the bread of the earth – the toil of their hands. They had had their fill. But their hunger was more persistent than that bread could satisfy. So he told them of the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

“Sir, give us this bread always!”

And that’s when he springs it on them: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And that was it. Like the cliffhanger at the end of a drama, we were left with that bold, unexplained statement. ‘I am that bread of life. Through me your needs will be met.’

So it’s understandable that we came back to the story for another look last week. There’s bread that gives life to the world and this guy claims to be it? Sure, he’s done some incredible things, but that might be pushing it.

And that’s right where we found the story last week. Jesus has just given away the secret – in the terms at least most likely to make any kind of sense to this crowd – and they were shocked. How can he claim to be some kind of magical bread from heaven that will give life to the world? Then they remembered who he was. ‘Is this not Jesus, whose father and mother we know? He’s just this guy, and here he is claiming he can give life to the world…’ You can almost hear the crowds mumbling against him.

Imagine if it were you. Once upon a time, you’d hired an intern to work in your office. She was just out of school and, maybe as a favor to her parents, you took her on for a while to help show her the ropes. Fast forward a few years and she’s back. This time she’s a consultant that your boss has brought in to help strategize for the future of the company. Imagine how you might feel when she starts telling you what you could be doing better or more efficiently. What nerve! You knew her when she didn’t know anything!

That must have been just how the people of the crowd felt that day. Jesus had certainly done well for himself. There was the whole feeding of the five thousand thing. But now he was just taking it too far.

I have to admit. As I was preparing to preach this week, I found this text pretty frustrating. Not only was I frustrated to have to be preaching on bread again, but also it started to feel like the message was beginning to get lost in the metaphor. With so much focus on bread, it felt like I was loosing the real focus. I mean, I get it. Jesus is like bread. Through Christ we are nourished and sustained. Without Christ we wander through the world with an insatiable hunger. Yeah, yeah. I get it!

But the thing was, I didn’t really get it.

I started looking for a way out. I found myself thinking; maybe I’ll focus on one of the other texts and just mention the bread thing again. In that desperation I stumbled on the line from the Letter to the Ephesians, and it was like something clicked: “Do not get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit!”

That’s what the bread talk is really all about: “Don’t get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit.”

We have earthly needs. No one can deny that we need our daily bread. But it’s easy to make the mistake of allowing those earthly needs to grow into something more: a kind of temporal drunkenness that distorts our vision of what is true.

Many of you know that I am an advocate for finding ways of bringing the church into new media and technology. I have long argued that churches should have great websites not just because it’s good marketing, but also because it is what I describe as “the new red door”. They are the first things that prospective visitors of the 21st century are likely to see.

I personally hate text messaging. Even with my iPhone, I just get annoyed with typing on the tiny keyboard. And if we’re going to be having a conversation anyway, why don’t we just call one another? But I do it, because I think that it will help me to reach people who might not be reached in any other way.

I blog. I facebook. I twitter. Certainly for fun, but also because I have this sneaking suspicion that these tools will bring me a step closer to finding and sharing the Body of Christ. And like Jesus talking to the crowds about bread, I believe that these tools can help me to meet the people of God where they are.

That was almost disrupted this week when I received a “gift” on facebook. In case you’re not familiar, one of the ways that facebook can be used is to give electronic gifts to people. For example, on someone’s birthday you may send them a little image of a birthday cake. Several months ago, in my circles, people were giving one another “exquisite vestments” – birettas and copes and whatnot. All in the form of little images. There are gifts for nearly every occasion.

And then it came: this week, a friend sent me a “communion” on facebook. Yes, you heard me right. There is now a facebook application that allows you to send virtual bread and wine to your friends.

When Trinity, Wall Street began tweeting the Holy Eucharist, I chuckled. But I thought, it’s really no different a concept than church bells. They’re just announcing to the community that Christ is present. But instead of a local neighborhood, the community to which they announce is the nearly 600 people from around the world who follow them on Twitter.

But virtual communion? At what point does the virtual world become nothing more than the temporal world? To what degree does it share a clearer vision of the Body of Christ, and to what degree does it simply distort what is true?

Perhaps these questions are more explicit in the online world, but they are the questions that face us in our lives as Christians every day. What is real? What is temporal?

Yes, we need our daily bread. But can we live on bread alone? God knows we can’t. Amen.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Of "Shark Week" and bread

9 August 2009
Proper 14B
John 6:35, 41-51

In the name of God: our Creator, Word, and Wisdom. Amen.

Last week, at Vacation Bible School, whenever the youth who served as counselors had a few minutes without children around, the conversation often turned to “Shark Week”. In case you’re not familiar with “Shark Week”, it’s a periodic series on the Discovery Channel. It started a few years ago when shark attacks were getting so much press and the beach-going public was buying into the media-fueled fear.

During “Shark Week” all of the regularly scheduled programming shifts its focus to something shark-related. And just about everything can be shark-related if you try hard enough! During “Shark Week” you’ll still see “Mythbusters”, but the myths that they test will all be about sharks. You’ll also still see “Dirty Jobs” but the jobs will have to do with all the disgusting and dangerous things people have to do when their job is to work with sharks.

It’s become an example of marketing genius. Perhaps it’s the timing – “Shark Week” is often in the summer, when people’s minds invariably turn to the shore. Perhaps it’s just because nothing better is on during the summer reruns. But whatever the reason, “Shark Week” is a huge hit.

But the Discovery Channel didn’t invent the concept of the series. The church was on to that plan long before anyone had heard of “Shark Week”. You may or may not have noticed, but we’re in the midst of a “Shark Week” of sorts here in the church.

For a few weeks now we’ve been talking about bread. Now I know what you’re thinking. Bread?! No wonder church the church is in decline! The world is talking about sharks, and we’re talking about BREAD!

I know. Bread isn’t exactly exciting. No 1970s horror movie was ever made about bread. No one will ever tell the story of death-defying experiences of bread. Bread is just the simple stuff of human hands. It’s the product of our labor and the source of our sustenance. It’s just wheat and water.

But it can be through this most simple and ancient of concoctions that we learn about Christ.

Two weeks ago we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand. With only five loaves of bread the multitudes had their fill.

And then last week the miracle became a metaphor: after giving them their daily bread Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…” Starting from the simple stuff of bread, he begins to change how we see the world.

It’s not exciting the way “Shark Week” is exciting, but it is revolutionary. And like all revolution-making, change the way we see the world-talk, his words – both simple and infinitely complex – “I am the bread of life” – were enough to shake the community who heard them.
“Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

It’s a story not entirely unlike our own. Like the crowds who were fed in the field that day followed Christ to see what might happen next, we, too, are drawn to Christ – at least enough to bring us here on Sunday mornings. And like those crowds, basking in the presence is not always enough for us, either. In our lust for certainty, we, too, find ourselves murmuring. Questioning. Drawn, but never quite sure.

This is the point in the sermon at which the leaders of some other churches might tell you to cast aside that doubt and simply trust in the Lord. (As if it were that simple!) One potential action plan in the face of uncertainty is to deny it. To look the other way until all we can see is the certainty. To treat faith as a tool meant to obfuscate the doubt that intrudes our every day. But I would argue that that kind of faith isn’t so much faith as it is filler. The faith to which we are called is something more. Like bread, it is simple and yet infinitely complex.

Last week, Elizabeth told us about some of the breads that we may choose instead of the Bread of Life: the Bread of Anxiety, the Bread of Weariness, the Bread of Control. They’re only fillers. But in facing our own emptinesses we cling to them. We cling to them because they give us a sense of fullness, even if only for a while. But sooner or later their truth is always revealed; and with it our emptiness reemerges, and all the heavier.

Like the Jews in the Gospel lesson today, we, too, are called to engage our doubt. The questions are all around us, and to know Christ – to really, honestly respond to having been drawn to Christ – we must wade through those questions. We must face our emptiness to find the fullness of the love of God.

This is one of the main job descriptions of the life of the Christian: to face the questions, even in the midst of the fear they inevitably inspire. That is the truest faith. Not turning some blind eye to questions, but immersing ourselves into the unknown. This is the work of discernment: to risk entering the unknown in the faith that God will reveal what is needed.

As a community we, in this parish, are in a season of intentional discernment. As Christians we are always called to be discerning the will of God in our lives, but as human beings we sometimes answer that calling more intentionally than at other times. And now is one of those times of intention in the life of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul.

Tim is in China, engaged in a season of discernment of his own. But we remain, doing the work of discerning where God is now calling us as a parish that is deeply committed to ministry with and for the younger members of the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

And soon Brandon will be leaving to further his education and career through continued study in England. During these past two years he has helped to lead us into a season of stability and strength in the music program. Sometime thereafter a new leader will come among us to aid us in this season of discernment about the ways that we worship and how we can build on the successes of the past two years moving forward.

There are many questions ahead. As I look out across the next year – with almost no sense of who or where we will be at this time next year – I am struck with fear. Though I am afraid, I vow to you that each day I will endeavor to avoid the Bread of Anxiety. I am filled with questions. And though there is so much that I don’t know, I will try not to fill that unknown with the Bread of Control.

We have been promised the Bread of Life. We have a lot of work to do before we can say that we have discerned what that means in our life together. Together we will experience joy beyond our ability to imagine it. We will be sad together. We may grow frustrated with one another. But in moving forward together we will find a deeper understanding of the Bread of Life. It will be embarrassingly simple and infinitely complex. Just like bread. Amen.