A Table Set for Everyone

I recently spoke at a symposium sponsored by Healthcare for All – WNC (a local branch of Physicians for a National Health Program  — PNHP.org).  Along with four other faith leaders in Asheville, I spoke to the question of whether healthcare for all is a moral obligation.  These were my remarks…


As a Christian theologian, I see our healthcare crisis as a crisis of communion.  On Sunday mornings when my congregation sets the table for the Lord’s Supper, we set upon it loaves of bread, which we call the Body of Christ, and a cup, which we call the blood of Christ.  We place the table in the center of the sanctuary because it signifies the center of our faith.  Jesus tells us he gives us this bread, his body, “for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51), so it can be no stretch to say that health, wholeness, and abundant life are crucial aims of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  Convinced of its life-giving power, we do not prevent anyone from sharing the meal.  In this sense, the Lord’s Supper is healthcare for all.

But Christians, as we have a habit of doing, forgot this crucial meaning almost as soon as we started practicing it.  St. Paul upbraids the church in Corinth when he discovers that some are devouring all the bread and chugging all the wine before everyone has a chance to partake.  Those who lived in the city, close to the centers of wealth and power, would get to church before everyone else, and they’d gobble everything up.  While those who lived on the outskirts and the countryside working long shifts, and who therefore got into town late, would find upon their arrival only crumbs and drunk people.  “Do you despise the church of God,” Paul asks, “by humiliating those who have nothing?” (1 Cor. 11:22).

Paul then exposes the morbid results of their gluttony: “This is why many among you are weak and sick,” he says.  “And a number of you have died” (1 Cor. 11:30).

I should say the contemporary problem Christians have in taking the Lord’s Supper today is not that we come to church finding only crumbs and drunks, but that we spiritualize this liturgical practice into oblivion.  We domesticate it, and turn it into a memorial service for Jesus.  “There, I remembered Jesus.  Can we go home now?”  So many Christians, when we could be part of healthcare solutions, end up perpetuating our problems by seeing no connection between our liturgical practices and our duty to our neighbors.

How should Christians’ participation in the Supper manifest itself in real solutions for healthcare in the United States?  I believe there are 3 primary ways:

  1. The Supper teaches us that what kind of food we eat matters. One of the reasons so many of us are sick is because we eat, and are given to eat, bad food.  Both government and private sectors heavily subsidize and advertise foods that contain too much sugar, salt, and fat.  We regularly ingest traces of herbicides and pesticides, antibiotics, and other pollutants.  When it’s impossible to escape carcinogens, it is no wonder that cancer is at epidemic levels.  But the bread at our table is wholesome, full of healthy grains, protein, and carbohydrates.  The cup from which we drink is full-bodied, nourishing, sweet without being saccharine.  Though Baptists usually fill their cups with grape-juice, most Christians do use wine.  (With Asheville’s new brunch bill, we might have some wiggle room).  Author Frederick Buechner has even commended wine to the church as an “antiseptic,” essential to fighting infection.  A central practice of the Christian life is setting the table with good, healthy, blessed food, grown and prepared by blessed hands.  Christians can participate in improving the overall health of our nation by using the Lord’s Supper as our template for what Wendell Berry calls “eating responsibly.”  We see a dramatic demonstration of this in the Lord’s Supper.
  2. The Supper also teaches us to share equal portions of life-giving sustenance with one another. If we’ve been truly shaped by the central practices of our faith, Christians cannot tolerate—we cannot imagine—justifying disparities in healthcare, whether by our own silence, or by the initiatives we support.  Someone shaped by communion cannot fathom pursuing boutique healthcare that prolongs their life at the expense of the poor and of children.  How many of us have grown weary of hearing the finer points of what the market will bear?  Let someone tell us what the “market” can bear. And we will tell them what human beings can bear.  The Lord’s Supper rightly administered trains us to see these vulgar chasms and humiliating disparities as offenses against the very Body of Christ.
  3. Finally, as I have reminded my congregation, when Christians share the Lord’s Supper, we are not only consuming the body and blood of Christ, we are even more consumed by it. Which means through communion we are made part of body of the one who refers to himself as “physician” (Luke 5:31).  The body into which Christians are engrafted through the Lord’s Supper is the body of a physician, a most compelling reason for us not only to do no harm, but to pour ourselves into the work of ensuring everyone has the healthcare they need.

Do Christians have a moral obligation to seek healthcare for all?  Inasmuch as we follow the Great Physician, the answer, in every physical, radical, practical, and social dimension, is…yes.

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Jimmy Kimmel, Prophet?

Those who hear me preach regularly know I love comedians.  Some Sundays, I’m just as likely to quote a comedian as I am a biblical scholar.  Of course, saying “I love comedians” isn’t that interesting.  It’s like saying, “I love ice cream,” or “I love vacations.”  Comedians entertain us, make us laugh, and provide diversions from the seriousness and monotony of daily life.  But, at their best, comedians do more than entertain.  As masters of rhetoric, they artfully expose our hypocrisies, lay bare our absurdities, and reveal our stupidities.  Because they do this playfully, making us laugh at ourselves, they hover under the radar of our natural resistance to rebuke.  But make no mistake, the true masters of comedy are really prophets-in-disguise.

Yet, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the past several years.  As tragedy piles on top of tragedy, our comedians are more often finding it necessary to break character in order to tell us the truth.  A day after the most deadly mass shooting in modern American history occurred in Las Vegas, late show host Jimmy Kimmel fought back tears throughout his extended opening monologue.  He pleaded with us for moral transformation and new (though still rather modest) gun legislation.  This is a man who started his career on “The Man Show,” a theater of sophomoric jokes, Cro-Magnon cheers for binge drinking, and women in bikinis bouncing on trampolines.  Nevertheless, Kimmel has become one of our most prophetic voices in times of crisis.  I’m reminded of Jesus’ Palm Sunday rebuke, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk. 19:40).

Perhaps God resorts to speaking to us through the most unlikely people because, as a nation, we eventually kill or simply dismiss (or disinvite) those whose prophetic messages are too overt for people with good manners.  Certainly, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (both shot to death).  But I also think of contemporary voices whose deep, rich, biblically-grounded messages are, more often than not, categorized and dismissed as too “saintly,” or too radical for everyday folk:  William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Will Campbell, and, more recently, Shane Claiborne, Ta-Nehisi Coats, William Barber, Helen Prejean, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and Bree Newsome.

Jesus pleaded with his countrymen to heed the prophets sent to them.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Matt. 23:37).

So many desolations of our time are the consequences of our violent or callous disregard for those who love us enough to cry out on our behalf.  If Americans won’t listen to our prophets, priests, and poets, our artists and activists, our scientists and farmers, our MacArthur Geniuses and southern gadflies, can we, at the very least, listen to Jimmy Kimmel?

 

Lenten Homily: “Penance”

Mt. 7:1-5, “Penance”, Sixth Wednesday in Lent, 5 Apr 2017

When I was studying the theology of reconciliation, I remember visiting the office of one of the finest theologians of the 20th Century, Geoffrey Wainwright.  He had been my teacher, and I trusted that he could help me address any related subjects I might be missing as I prepared to write my dissertation.  So, I went to ask him this simple question: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word reconciliation?”  I had hoped he would tell me a fascinating story about forgiveness, or reflect for a while on some relevant biblical passage.  Instead, he simply offered one word.  Without elaborating, he said, “Penance.”

The definition of penance has to do with self-punishment as a means of repentance for one’s sins.  It is a voluntary act of contrition that takes different forms across the diverse spectrum of Christianity.  For example, for Catholics, penance is both a virtue and a sacrament.  Through the practice of penance, Catholics confess their sins to a priest in a confessional, and are given instructions for prayer or charitable acts, depending on the severity of the sins committed.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are no confessionals.  The penitent kneels before an icon of Christ, so that confession may be made directly to Christ, with the priest serving only as a witness and comforter.  As well, Anglicans and Episcopals, Methodists and Lutherans, all have their own approaches to penance and reconciliation.  Baptists, however, have practically done away with the sacrament of penance as a way to reconciliation with God and neighbor, perhaps because we are concerned that such a practice is unnecessary when we supposedly have a direct line to God’s grace in Jesus.  Better to confess our sins silently, in private, and avoid the humiliation of confession and penance.

But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us painful work to do.  “Take the log out of your own eye.  Then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”  The more I think about this passage, the more it makes me wince.  A splinter in the ball of my foot is one thing.  If it’s really submerged underneath the skin, it can be quite an unpleasant operation.  But a splinter in my eye?  I suppose it would take some creative gymnastics to achieve that painful consequence.  As well, it would likely take a careful, even surgical procedure to achieve relief.  Which makes even more bizarre the spectacle Jesus describes of having a log, or beam, lodged in one’s eye.  This is a comically large log, a cartoonish picture of someone looking to pass judgment on another.  On our best days, we might be able to remove a splinter from our own eye.  But a massive beam?  We’re going to need someone else’s help, and it’s going to be a painful extraction.

But the painful work of discerning our own sins and wrongdoings with others’ help is necessary if we would be reconciled to God.  The more serious our sins, the more help from the community we are going to need.  Even if we are Baptists.  Or, I should say, precisely because we are Baptists, we should know that we are, as Carlyle Marney often said, “priests to one another.”  That is, within our community known as the priesthood of all believers, we are given to each other as mediators and comforters, who have the authority to hear one another’s confessions, call each other to repentance, and speak to one another of the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer calls us to reclaim the practice of confession and penance, so that it is simply and purely integrated into the life of discipleship, and as regular a Christian habit as mission work.  Like much we call mission work, there will be some painful, heavy lifting involved…to extract the ponderous, wooden beam from our own eye.  As Bonhoeffer says,

“Confession in the presence of a brother [or sister] is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a [person] down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother [or sister] – which means, before God – we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old [person] dies, but it is God who has conquered him [or her]. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life” (from Life Together).

To some, this may sound like works righteousness.  Are we not already the recipients of God’s grace?  Does God’s grace not cover all my sins?  Why do I need to confess my sins if I am already forgiven?  Indeed, God’s grace does cover up all our sins.  We learn from Jeremiah that God will even “forget” our sins.  As well we should say the practice of penance can be abused and has been abused.  But now we are talking about a complete reorientation of the heart, one that reveals penance as a gift from God that enables us to conquer sinful habits, and free us from the cumbersome timber that thwarts our vision.

If we would be reconciled to God, and live in harmony with God and neighbor, then may we have the courage to tell a trusted sister or brother in Christ, with a broken and contrite heart, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Lenten homily: “Healing”

Mt. 8:14-17, “Healing”, Fifth Wednesday in Lent, 29 Mar 2017

To suggest that we’re capable of being healed, or of healing one another, without doctors or modern medicine makes us modern people skittish.  We have become convinced that healing by anything other than scientific, empirically verifiable means is either the result of good luck, accident, or coincidence.  Consider the recent example of Jimmy Carter, a nonagenarian diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, who tested as cancer free only a few months after his diagnosis.  We can explain his swift cure by referring to the scientific genius of new immunotherapy drugs.  But consider the Midwestern boy I know of, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and who was almost certainly going to die, but who, upon going back to be scanned months later to see how the tumor had grown, found that it had completely, mysteriously disappeared.  Most of us would explain that by saying it was remarkably good luck.  We might rightly give thanks to God for both of these outcomes.  But I contend most of us would be more reluctant to say how or if God healed them.

Our reticence about naming the God of Jesus Christ as the agent of miraculous healing has many sources.  We are rightly concerned not to condemn those who remain sick or those who die in spite of their desperate prayers for healing.  We are also rightly concerned about those who take advantage of others’ sincere faith for personal gain—snake oil sellers, new-age magicians…preachers.

But to dismiss outright the possibility of healing miracles even in our modern age is to disregard one of the most compelling aspects of Jesus’ character and ministry.  To simply delete Jesus’ healing miracles would be to leave the pages of the Gospels in tatters.  Jesus’ fame spread so quickly primarily because of his power to heal.  In Matthew 8, after he heals a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others, great crowds come after him, so that he has to escape by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  If we had lived in that region at the time, we most likely would have first heard about this fellow named Jesus because of his miraculous healings.

Because healers and magicians were so common in antiquity, we should ask why so many are crowding around Jesus.  The difference lies in the fact that when Jesus’ heals, he isn’t doing magic.  As Gerhard Lohfink notes, “A striking feature of Jesus’ miracles is the speed with which they occur.  There is never an account of a long procedure like those characteristic of many medicine women and men, shamans, and healers…The eyewitnesses were moved and shaken by Jesus’ power and authority.”[1]  In other words, Jesus does not see the world as a mystical system of spiritual buttons and levers you can manipulate with the correct formula or spell.  Rather, as Lohfink asserts, Jesus’ healings reveal “God’s sovereignty over creation…[and] the brilliance with which God endowed [creation] from the first.”[2]

Jesus healed people using two methods: the spoken word, and physical touch.  He also healed two types of people:  those who expressed faith, and those who didn’t.  When he heals the centurion’s servant, he does so by “word” from a distance, in tandem with the centurion’s faith.  Jesus often tells someone after healing them that their faith has made them well.  But when Jesus comes to Peter’s house, and finds Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, there is no mention of her faith.  Jesus also does not cure her fever by speaking a word at a distance.  Jesus cures her fever simply by touching her hand.

If we moderns would be more inclined to embrace the possibilities Jesus’ healing ministry opens for us, we would likely prefer the former means.  That is, we would be more comfortable asking God to heal others through prayers of intercession.  But I believe a more comprehensive appreciation of Jesus’ healing ministry will lead the church to take seriously the immediate power of the healing touch, of skin-to-skin contact between human beings.

This is true from birth.  Placing a newborn directly, skin-to-skin, on its mother’s chest for long periods of time keeps the baby warmer, leads to healthier blood sugar levels, and is even shown to enhance brain development.  Newborns who’re able to experience immediate skin-to-skin contact also cry less.  So, from birth we cry out for skin-to-skin contact.

To be clear, I’m not advocating applying Jesus’ modes of healing as mere technique for healthier living.  To do so would be to succumb again to strictly scientific assumptions about the world, but with embarrassing and disappointing consequences.  Rather, I believe a recovery of the sacramental and incarnational modes of Jesus healing ministry will reintroduce us to a way of life that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all things, including our flesh.  Just as God has taken on the corruption of human flesh in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, so we are called to bear one another’s burdens, not from a distance, but up close.

“Are any among you sick?” James asks. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (Jas. 5:14-15). 

Put simply: The Body of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is given the power to extend Christ’s healing ministry into the world.  The wiser physicians already know this, and are becoming increasingly aware of the power of faith and tight communal bonds in matters of life and death.  May we also soften our hearts to reimagine what it means to say Jesus is Lord of our bodies, and to entrust ourselves completely to the One who is called the Great Physician.

[1] Gerhard Lohfink, No Irrelevant Jesus, 62.

[2] Ibid., 63.

Lenten homily: “Fasting”

Mt. 6:16-18, “Fasting”, Fourth Wednesday in Lent, 22 Mar 2017

As a novice pastor in my first church, I had the idea one Holy Week that I would fast in the days leading up to Easter.  So, not knowing what I was doing, and a bit fearful because I operate on a thin margin of reserve when it comes to weight, I abstained from food for nearly three days, from breakfast on Maundy Thursday, to Easter Eve.  I did not advertise it.  Only Erin knew.  But I was determined.  All I consumed during that time was water.  I don’t recommend this for everyone.  Many of us deal with health concerns.  I have not fasted for that amount of time since then.  At the risk of sounding like a humble braggart, especially in light of the text, which asks that we fast in secret, I wish to share with you a testimony of sorts about what I learned from this first serious foray into this particular spiritual discipline.

First, I learned that Jesus preached this command for a good reason.  Because even though I didn’t tell anyone, it was kind of like when someone becomes a vegan, I wanted everyone to know.  Jesus says, “Don’t fast like the hypocrites, who look dismal, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others they’re fasting.”  One translation says, “for they neglect their appearance.”  Sunken eyes, long in the face, greasy hair.  And you know that “hurt dog” look people get?  The one that begs the question, “Are you okay?”  These were the characteristics of my temptation.  And I kept wanting Erin to pamper me and ask me how was I doing and try to talk me out of it.

The second thing I learned was just the very beginning of what serious hunger pangs feel like.  They can be maddening.  They come in waves and consume your thoughts and make you self-centered.  You’re even tempted to become ravenous.  You get to the point where decaf herbal green tea tastes like Coca-Cola.  A rice cake would be a feast.  By Saturday morning, I was dreaming of homemade pancakes, sausage, syrup, orange juice, coffee.  Nope!  Water.  And hunger.  But those pangs did something else to me.  They reminded me of the sick and dying, who cannot eat, and who must endure hunger in their last days.  They reminded me of the children in our community who fasted everyday whether they wanted to or not, who depended on school for breakfast and lunch, and for whom dinner was a question mark.  And the pangs reminded me of people around the world who face far fiercer hunger pangs for months, years, or a lifetime.  So the first thing I learned was that I was a hypocrite, but the hunger pangs taught me that I didn’t have to be.  I could identify, in a small but significant new way, with people’s pain as I couldn’t have before.

The third thing I learned was the most surprising of all.  Erin and I had a date at the local steakhouse that Saturday evening, Easter Eve, where I planned to break my fast.  I’d been dreaming about it all that day.  But I won’t forget what happened when the server brought the meal.  There it was.  Steak.  Baked potato.  The stuff of my dreams.  And I reached for my fork and knife, but then only reluctantly.  I looked up at Erin and said, “It’s the strangest thing…I’m not hungry.”  In fact, I felt energized, as if I could go on for days longer.  Jesus’ words flashed out at me, “You don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  It’s true.

This revelation is common to those who fast regularly, and for much longer than I ever have.  One of the most famous fasters I’ve ever known was not a Christian, but a Muslim.  The former NBA All-Star, Hakeem Olajuwon, who, during Ramadan, would go all day without eating or drinking, and then play an entire basketball game, and his numbers would go up (In February 1995, during the month of Ramadan, he was named NBA Player of the Month).  But what struck his teammates about his fasting was that he never winced, or looked downcast. They’d be drinking their Gatorade beside him during timeouts, and he’d go on as if nothing were happening.  After moving to Jordan, he said he preferred fasting in the United States, because it’s more challenging.  “It’s like somebody who swims in a pool or somebody who is swimming in the ocean,” he said. “The ocean is stronger so makes a better swimmer.”[1]

And we do swim in an ocean of gluttony.  What should really make us wince is the fact that Americans waste nearly 50% of our produce—about 60 billion tons of food—a year.  The way we have arranged our desires is reflected in our food production and consumption.  We live like this because we think we need more than enough.  But fasting in secret reveals an alternative for people of faith.  Fasting in secret creates the conditions for the visceral revelation that we’re not always right about what we think we need.  By fasting in secret, we constrain our mortal appetites in order that God may whet our appetite for the divine.

Therefore, Christians don’t look dismal when we fast because we find ourselves entering the joy of God’s providence.  When we fast faithfully, the deprivation of food teaches us just how completely God nourishes and sustains us.

To be sure, we can fast any time of year.  But fasting during Lent prepares our empty bellies to be filled with the good news of the empty tomb.  So, my fellow well-meaning foodies—Asheville’s finest—as we are able, may we put down our forks for time, dot the crowns of our heads with oil, and, in secret, feast on the Word, with whom we will never go hungry, and in whom we will never thirst.

[1] http://www.thenational.ae/sport/north-american-sport/ramadan-or-not-hakeem-olajuwon-a-dominant-force-in-nba

 

Lenten Homily: “Prayer”

Mt. 6:5-15, “Prayer”, Third Wednesday in Lent, 15 Mar 2017

When Jesus teaches us to pray, he gives us specific things to do, and not to do.  The first thing Jesus teaches us not to do is pray like hypocrites.  Who are hypocrites?  The short answer is, “All of us, at one time or another.”  But in matters of prayer over a lifetime, hypocrites are those whose prayers do not measure up to the demands of the gospel.  They don’t weigh enough, their words aren’t heavy enough.  They don’t land with a thud, and don’t leave craters in the dirt like they should.  Hypocrites pray lightly to a just and merciful God, but do not offer the weighty mercy, and costly justice on behalf of those in their care.  Hypocrites’ words put the weight on others.  They rob widows’ houses.  They burden the poor with more debt.

Jesus says in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  We are told not to pray like these hypocrites, these lightweights.  If we could borrow the language of high school boys competing in the weight room, “How much ya bench?”  In matters of prayer, “How much ya bench?”  Genuine prayers heft the weightier matters before God.  True prayers lift, strain, rejoice, struggle, dance, wrench, suffer.  True prayers tip the scales.

Where do we go to do this heavy lifting?  Jesus says, “Go into your room, shut the door, and pray in secret.”  Translation: “Go into seclusion.  Turn off your television, radio, cell phone.  And…take off your mask.”  Go into your room, shut the door, and strip yourself of all pretensions before God.  Go off into the dark, and dream, and become vulnerable to the strange God who comes to wrestle you to the ground, and invites you to push back.

In the sayings of the Desert Fathers, we learn of an encounter between an Abba Moses and one of his monks.  In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. The old man said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”  Thomas á Kempis escalates this principle saying, “Every time you leave your cell, you come back less a man.”  So go into your room, shut the door, pray in secret to be a human being.  Bare yourself.  Give yourself completely, your joy and your anger, your hope and your despair, your blessing and your cursing.  Weigh God with your words.  Burden God with your burdens.

Only in our cells do we most readily pray with genuine hearts, that we may pour ourselves out to God.  There in our cells, we are uninhibited by social conventions and good manners,for good manners are the enemy of good prayers.  There in our cell, we may surprise ourselves with our honesty before God, and be surprised by God’s blunt truth revealed to us.  There in our cells, we have no motive to heap up empty phrases.  There’s no one to impress or disappoint.  There in our cells, we may pray as the Psalmists do, unleashing our hearts on God with no restraint.

One of the things that strikes me and judges me about the Psalmists is seeing how they dance and sing in their prayers.  I don’t know that I’ve ever danced a prayer.  Have you?  If so, how do you dance when the door is shut and no one’s looking?  Like Michael Jackson or Bruno Mars?  Or is it more like Lourde, or Elaine Benis?  Does it matter either way?  In any case, perhaps a genuine Lenten discipline would be to let our dancing and rejoicing in secret be a weighty prayer to the God who enjoys your joy.

But remember as well, the Psalmists confront and accuse God.  They cry out and suffer God’s absence.  One Psalmist says to God, “Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me…You have put me in the depths of the Pit.”  The Psalmist shuts herself up in her cell, and prays in secret, and pounds her fists into the mattress, and sighs heavy, weighty sighs—sighs too deep for words.  She blames God with a swollen throat and a voice that cracks, and she emerges from her cell with hair strewn, cheeks chaffed and smeared with tears.  These are not the prayers we pray before the family cookout.  These are prophetic prayers, Jeremiah’s prayers, “O Lord, you have ravished and overpowered me.  You have taken advantage of me! Cursed be the day I was born!”  Pray that one at Sunday dinner…

Surely, I am exaggerating.  Surely, Jesus is not calling us to pray with these Psalmists, and especially not with Jeremiah.  Yet, if we don’t pray with the Psalmists, and we find Jeremiah too ponderous, we cannot learn how to pray with Jesus in Gethsemane.  There, Jesus withdraws from the disciples, kneels down, and prays, “Father, please let this cup pass from me.  Yet, not my will, but yours be done.”  Then, the scripture says, “In his anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Jesus wasn’t very good at transcendental meditation.

If we would pray with Jesus on the way to the cross, then let us withdraw, go into our cell, kneel down, bare our whole, heavy heart to God, and bleed.

 

 

 

Lenten Homily: “Almsgiving”

Mt. 6:2-4, “Almsgiving”, Second Wednesday in Lent, 8 Mar 2017

What does it mean to give alms?  In the most direct sense, it means to practice charity.  The haves give to those who have not.  This meaning has guided Christians from the earliest days of the church.  But if we trace the word back to its origins, the heart of the matter has to do with mercy.  In the most complete sense, almsgiving is mercy made practical.

In Luke, Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  But a similar verse in Matthew reads, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  So, the parallel reveals a compelling and indivisible theological connection between mercy and perfection.  Mercy and perfection are intertwined.  To be merciful is to become like God who is merciful.  To become like God who is merciful is to become like God who is perfect.  So, in giving alms, we participate not only in mercy, but also in perfection.  “Not that [we] have received perfection,” as Paul tells the Philippians, “but [we] press on to make it [our] own, because Christ Jesus has made [us] his own” (Phil 3:12).

From our earliest days, Christians have given themselves to extraordinary practices of almsgiving, inspired in the truest sense by what God has done for us in Jesus.  Jesus Christ is God’s almsgiving to humanity.  We see the alms Jesus gives us through his practical works of mercy: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11:5).  Those who had not, now have.  These practical expressions of God’s almsgiving in Jesus determine almsgiving for the rest of the age.  Christians who have, give to those who have not, because that is precisely how God in Christ has closed the gap between divinity and humanity.  This example never changes, as James tells us, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas 1:17).

We see this divine/human model of almsgiving not only in the life of Jesus, but also in his death.  God gives Godself to us completely in Jesus on the cross.  There, Jesus is poured out for us, emptied for us.  He was “crucified, dead, and buried.”  Seeing what God has done for us on the cross deepens the significance for the practice of almsgiving by showing us we must finally give it all up, even our hope for a legacy.  For Jesus becomes the forgotten man on the cross.  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  This is partly why Christians historically have also given alms at funerals.  As scholar Peter Brown has taught us,

Both [the poor and the dead] depended on the generosity of others. Both cried out to be remembered in a world that could all too easily have forgotten them. But to forget either the dead or the poor was doubly abhorrent to … Jews and Christians…whose worst fear was that their God might forget them (“Bridge to God: Remembering the Poor, Remembering the Dead,” Christian Century, 2 Apr 2015).

Why, then, does Jesus ask our left hand to forget what our right hand is doing, so that our alms may be done in secret?  In this expression, we see the divine/human model of almsgiving likened to the resurrection of Jesus.  God gives the resurrection to us in secret.  We don’t know precisely what happened in the tomb other than God raised Jesus from the dead.  Neither God, nor the Gospels, give us any details of that mysterious moment.  Nevertheless, though God’s will is fulfilled for us in secret, clouded in mystery, it’s no less effective and true.  In the same way, we’re told to give alms in secret.  Such almsgiving might appear at times to “go to waste.”  Then again, it might also have dramatic effects.  But though the resurrection happened in secret, it’s never lost on us.  The practice of almsgiving is finally the practice of storing up treasures in heaven, because nothing God gives, and nothing given to God, is ever ultimately lost.

Why the subject of almsgiving on this first Celtic Evening Liturgy?  Because apart from the practice of almsgiving, our Lenten journey is in vain.  Our possessions will continue to possess us, weigh us down, afflict, and eventually exhaust us.  This is why it’s important to remember the wisdom of one of our most endearing almsgivers, Wendell Berry, who said, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire” (in Farming: A Hand Book).

But Berry also said, “Take all that you have and be poor” (“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”).  To take all we have and be poor is to receive the mercy of the great Almsgiver’s life, death, and resurrection, and finally, to rest in the blessed poverty of total dependence on God alone.

Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Joy is a tricky word in a culture obsessed with happiness.  “Are you happy?” we ask each other.  “Do you have a happy marriage?”  “Does your work make you happy?”  Extroverts are generally happier people, we think.  Introverts, not as happy.  An introverted Santa Claus would be problematic.

A distinguished social psychology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a bestseller “proving” that people who flourish in life are those who’ve reached the tipping point of the “3 to 1 positivity/negativity ratio.”  But you don’t need tenure to sell the promise of happiness.  Joel Osteen was even more successful with his book, Everyday a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week.  I’m betting 3 to 1 odds that Good Friday was not the book’s central theme.

Where scientists and celebrities offer us commodified happiness—happiness analyzed, inspected, measured, multiplied, and for sale—Isaiah testifies to something different…joy.  Despite living in a time of great unhappiness, Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” (61:10).  His joy is immeasurable, abundant, inexhaustible.  We cannot capture it.  It is empirically unverifiable.  How exactly does one calculate Isaiah’s rejoicing in spite of “the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (v. 4)?

Even more, Isaiah says, “My whole being shall exult in my God.”  The phrase, “my whole being,” is from the Hebrew word, nephesh, which is usually translated “soul.”  That is, your soul is not an ethereal wisp that evacuates your body at death.  Your body is part of your soul, as are your desires and your dreams, your present and your past.  Most specifically for Isaiah in this verse, the soul is the seat of emotion and passion.  Standing in the smoldering ruins of Israel’s life, Isaiah describes an all-consuming joy—an unending joy grounded in the certainty that God will make good on God’s promises.

That’s the difference between happiness and joy.  We pursue happiness, but joy pursues us.  We consume happiness.  Joy consumes us.  Happiness comes and goes.  It’s fleeting.  It attaches itself to the present moment, then absconds again.  It may last for a season, or for a second.  Joy is different.  Joy endures.  Joy has an eternal quality, so that even the anticipation for that which makes us joyful can also be called joy.  Such patient waiting enables us to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16), with all our heart and mind, with all our present and our past.

What Isaiah and Paul know, and what Advent reveals to us, is that joy is not a feeling we conjure up.  It’s not dependent on our fickle human nature.  Our joy is rooted in the God who “restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3).  We should even say joy is a person, that our joy is Jesus Christ, that Jesus is joy.  The good news is that “great joy for all people” (Lk. 2:11) is coming to us.  We will find him in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

A Post-Election Invocation

Yesterday in worship, I preached on a new heaven and a new earth, and how God might remember and honor the depth of human suffering, even though “the former things will pass away” (Is. 65:17).  I chose to let the text take me where the text would lead.  Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the stirrings of my people’s hearts and mine will continue to direct my sermon content.

Yet, I also devoted a great deal of care to the crafting of the following invocation, in light of the events of the past week.  I am reprinting it here, in order for people to see my hopes for the church, as we navigate the turbulent waters of our time, and do so as disciples of the one who has gone ahead of us, to prepare a place for us… (Jn. 14:3):

Almighty God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, gather us to yourself in this hour, alight on us with your holy and life-giving Spirit, and move our hearts and the hearts of our nation to embrace a common life together.  In the wake of our national election, wherever hatred persists or bitterness endures, bring peace.  Wherever divisions occur, bring healing.  Whenever walls arise between us, bring them crashing down. Guide our officials and representatives to faithfulness and wisdom, that the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes.  But make of us a people, humble in heart, peaceable, and gentle.  Make of your church a sparkling city on a hill, where the light of truth and justice shines, and darkness cannot overcome it.  In these years to come, strengthen the members of First Baptist Church of Asheville to be courageous disciples, bearers of the fruits of your Spirit, ambassadors of reconciliation, peacemakers in this city and beyond, that we may be repairers of the breach… Amen.

The Rulers of the Gentiles

“I’m worried for our nation,” a senior church member recently told me.  Knowing her to be a quiet person, I was concerned to see her upset.  “I’ve never seen our country like this, and I just think we need to be committing ourselves to prayer.”  Then she paused, and said, “I just don’t know what to do.”

I confess I also don’t know “what to do.”  I have mixed emotions on the eve of what is unarguably the most pathetic national election in our nation’s history.  I have no easy answers.  My heart stirs with a strange blend of sadness and hope.

Proverbs 29:2 says, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”  I am one of those who groans with sadness today.  I’m sad for our country’s collective refusal to confront our long history of racism, militarism, and greed.  I’m sad that we cannot seem to work together to promote the common good.  I’m sad that the benefits of the only bipartisan agreements our representatives ever reach never seem to reach most people.  I’m sad that we continue to indulge so many robber barons, while nearly half the country lives in or close to the poverty line.  I’m sad that we are all finding out the hard way that even in a democracy we are nevertheless frighteningly susceptible to fascism and totalitarianism.  I am sad that a country full of so much beauty, energy, and passion to do the right thing continues to wallow in political dysfunction.  And I am sad because I, too, am part of the dysfunction.

But my heart also stirs with hope.  I am hopeful when I remember that Jesus upbraided his disciples for getting too caught up in elections and appointing cabinet members.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there’s a version of a story in which certain disciples argue over who’s the greatest among them. And in each of these Gospels, this incident is followed by Jesus warning his disciples.  In Luke, he says, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those exercising authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you…” (Lk. 22:25-26a).  It is this not so with you that sustains me with hope today.

To be sure, we’ve all been inundated by propaganda from political parties making promises of benefaction.  We’ve now been enduring this election cycle for two-and-a-half years. We’ve given our nation’s electoral politics free rent in our head for too long.  We can’t turn on a television, radio, or smartphone, drive down a neighborhood street, or even stand beside a water cooler without our attention being diverted to electoral politics.

This is intentional on the part of the powers and principalities, a systematic form of bullying on a grand scale, and a means of diverting our attention away from the indispensable political work of church and community building.  In these ways our rulers do “lord it over us, calling themselves benefactors.”  Perhaps John Prine was right all along to sing,

Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper.  Go to the country, build you a home.  Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches.  Try an’ find Jesus on your own.

To be sure, as Christians, we’re called to “pay respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7), which Paul says in the context of governing authorities.  We may respect and honor our representatives by giving them our vote, inasmuch as voting enables a peaceful transfer of power between governing officials.  But we should only engage whatever political system we’re part of as Christians, which means seeking the peace of the city, and participating in Jesus’ mission to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the naked, and those in prison.

What really gives me hope is the truth that Christians have more important things to do than engage in the pathological frenzy of any political system.  As followers of Jesus, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9).  The kingdom we’re inheriting is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).

So, though I will engage in the politics of voting tomorrow, Nov. 8, I will do so only light of the politics of the Lord’s Supper I shared with my congregation on All Saints Day, Nov. 6.  This is my hope for every Christian:  that our passion for the Body of Christ, the epicenter of God’s politics, supersedes and overrides the world’s passion for statecraft.  The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over us.  But at the Lord’s Table, we are consumed, not by political propaganda, but by Christ’s own flesh and blood.  There we learn anew what it means to be one with God and neighbor, what it means to celebrate God’s abundance, what it means to love our enemies, and what it means for broken bodies to be made whole again.