2009-12-26

GOD HAS GIVEN US HIS WORD


A Sermon For Year C, Christmas 1
Copyright © 2010 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 and John 1:1-18

I want to begin by congratulating us. In the last few weeks, most of us in this place have made our shopping lists, and checked them twice. We have figured out who was naughty, and who was in fact nice.

We have licked envelopes until our tongues tasted like glue. We have wrapped presents, tied bows, and endured paper cuts innumerable.

We have listened to approximately 237 hours of Christmas music, watched three versions of Dicken's Christmas Carol, and seen "It's a Wonderful life" 2.4 times.

We have been to more Christmas parties than we can count, eaten more cookies and pies than we should have, and realized that 7% of our body mass is now made up entirely of Turkey and Dressing.

And now, instead of spending this hour writing thank you cards, or taking out garbage cans full of wrapping paper and gift boxes, or figuring out where to put up all our new presents, we are here.

We have made it though a lot to be here today. A lot of people. A lot of activities. A lot of family drama. So let us all take one, big, deep breath.

You are here. In the Lord's House. To worship.

In the midst of doing, doing, doing, you have come here to just "be". To just "be" in the presence of the Lord. You are not just a human doing. You are a human being.

So, take another deep breath and just "be".

Look around you. Look at the altar. Look at the cross. Look at the stained glass. And as you look, remember WHY you are here.

And just "be".

Listen for a moment. After a holiday full of noise, full of joy, full of drama: Listen to the silence [pause].

And just "be".

Why are you in this place today? Why did you come here? What are you seeking?

This place is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the world all around us. It is not only a sanctuary in the religious sense, but it is a sanctuary in the fullest sense: It is a safe place to retreat from the craziness of life.

It is a safe harbor from the hurricane of endless activity and deadlines and decisions that swirls all around our daily lives.

It is a place to reconnect with WHY we exist, WHO we really are, and WHO we really belong to.

That is why I am here. To reconnect. To just "be" in the presence of God. To re-center myself upon the One who is the Center, the Source, and the Purpose of all existence.

And it is because of this that I believe the Gospel reading for this Sunday after Christmas is perfect. Every year, it is the same reading: The beginning of the Gospel of John. The Story of the Word of God who became one of us.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us."

Now, like translating any language into English, this reading looses a little in the translation. Because the Greek word "Logos", which we translate as "Word", does not fit neatly into our language.

Logos can mean many things, depending on the context it is used in:

If Logos were used in reference to a building or a work of art, it would be the essential shape that makes the thing what it is.

If Logos were used in reference to a Story or a Drama, it would be the Plot or Purpose that drives the Storyline to its completion.

If Logos were used in reference to a song or symphony, it would be the musical score that tells all the instruments how to converge and diverge to create beautiful music.

And yet, this Logos, this Word of God, is still more than the Purpose and Plot of our existence. These are still abstract and impersonal. They miss the full translation.

Another way to get at it would be this: Let's say you come to me and need me to help you somehow, and it's really important, and if I can't help you, then you will be in a real tight spot.

Then I look at you right in the eyes and say "Don't worry. I give you my WORD. I will be there for you."

That gets at the personal side of what John is saying here when he talks about Jesus being the Word of God. Because when I give you my Word, I am not just saying "yes". I am not just giving you a promise. I am giving you myself. I am saying "Trust in me. I will be here for you".

So, this beginning of John turns out to be saying something revolutionary, something that had never happened before on the world stage.

Because, on one hand, John agrees with most cultures and religions and philosophies across history. Most people have some sense that our world is created by a creative "Word": That there is a Purpose, a Plot, a Meaning behind our existence that guides our lives, and our history, to a goal.

That is not a very revolutionary idea in itself. But what John does that is revolutionary is to say that THIS Word has come to us, and become one of us. In Jesus, God has looked us straight in the eye, and said "Don't worry. I give you my WORD. I will be there for you."


History is littered with the assumption that humans must struggle and strive and work to attain that Purpose that is "out there", somewhere beyond us, as something abstract and unattainable.

But John makes the incredible leap of faith to the idea that this Purpose has not stayed "out there". Instead, that Purpose has given us a promise in Christ. That Meaning has given us Himself in Jesus. That Word has said "Trust in me. I will be here for you".

John says that God has given Godself to us, to be seen by us, to be known by us, to be touched by us, in Christ Jesus.

I supposed if God had wanted to make Godself known to ants, God would have become an ant. Or if God wanted to be known by dogs, God would have become a dog. And who knows, perhaps God did do just that, and we haven't found out yet.

But we do know that God has made humans in God's own image to Love God and be Loved by Him, to know God and make God known.

And so, after God had prepared humanity for his arrival through Ages and Stages, by sending Prophets and Sages, God became human to be KNOWN by humans.

That is what John is getting at by saying that "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

The Law is the preparation. It is the set of instructions to clean the house to prepare for holiday guests. First you clean the bathroom, then the kitchen, then the bedrooms, then the living room, and so forth. After that, you are ready for your company to come.

Moses and the whole Tradition of the Jewish Law was a preparation for our Christmas Guest: The God made flesh. This Law taught us to put God first, to not confuse idols with the Real thing, to make space and time to worship God, to treat other people with justice, dignity, and Love.

And not only was the Jewish Law a preparation for the coming of God in Christ, but many cultures have been a preparation for Christ as well.

Early Christian teachers, like Justin the Martyr, taught that Greek and Roman cultures prepared the Gentiles for Christ, in the same way that the Jewish Law prepared Jews for Christ.

Many cultures, many belief systems, give us a "Law" which is fulfilled in Jesus. They teach us that there is a Purpose and a Meaning guiding All Reality; They teach us to avoid idols and illusions which masquerade as God; They teach us about Love and Justice and the dignity of human life.

But they are all incomplete. All miss the mark. All fall short. Whether it is the Hebrew Law, or Greek philosophy, or another worldview: The best they can be is a preparation for our Guest.

Grace and Truth, God in human form, comes in its fullest in Christ. In Christ, God doesn't just give us another Law. He looks us in the eye and gives us His Word.

And that is why this reading comes at the perfect time of year every year.

Every year, we enter into a month-long period of intense activity that runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Every year, we run ourselves ragged by doing, doing, doing, and we desperately need a place to just "be".

Every year, we finish Christmas exhausted, and we desperately need a time to rest, reflect and re-assess our lives: WHY we are we here? WHO are we? WHO do we really belong to?

And every year, we are confronted with the fact that the Purpose of our lives, the "Why" of our existence, has sought us, and found us, and is present to us in Jesus Christ.

In fact, in our society, it is almost as if we purposely re-live the struggle between the Law and Faith that Paul speaks of in our reading from Galatians today.

Think about it: Every year, summer ends, and the activity ramps up. This is especially true of families with kids in school, but it is also true of anyone who lives around friends or family with kids in school.

Which is just about all of us.

And so, as the fall semester begins, we plunge into activity after activity, and event after event. We live our lives by our appointment calendars and our to-do lists.

These calendars and lists tell us what must be done, who must be seen, where we must go, and when to be there.

Each kid, each job, each organization in our lives has their own calendar, their own list. And these lists and calendars fight with each other for dominance.

What will win? Family time or the project at the office? Do we go to Sally's ballet recital, or Billy's soccer tournament? Will I spend time helping with the school project, or completing the spreadsheet for the presentation?

And then, as fall turns into winter, a new set of calendars and lists are imposed on us. What are the Thanksgiving plans? When do we schedule the Christmas parties? What does everyone want for Christmas? How can we possibly find enough time and money to buy gifts?

And all of the lists and calendars crescendo into a symphony of controlled chaos on Christmas, when Christ finally arrives.

And afterward, finally, all is calm again. There is rest. The presents and the parties and the calendars and the lists are finally done. If only for a few days. There is rest.

You know what all these calendars and lists and requirements and activities sound like to me? They sound a lot like what the Bible calls "Law".

And this cycle of chaotic activity finally leading to rest in Christ: It sounds a lot like what Paul describes when he says:

"Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith."

Do you sometimes feel imprisoned by all the activities and requirements in your life? I do.

Do you sometimes look at your appointment calendar and to-do lists as a disciplinarian who sternly guards your life? I do too.

Do you yearn to reconnect with the real Purpose and Meaning for your life, to find that Faith that has been left behind, somewhere in the clutter and chaos of everyday life? I do too.

When Paul uses the word "justified", it means to be put back into a right relationship, a right standing with God.

And that right relationship is not one where we are slaves, endlessly toiling for a harsh boss, who will never be happy with our hard work. That right relationship is not one in which we check our to-do list to see if we have done everything to please God.

Rather, that right relationship is that of children, who are held close by our Father's embrace. It is a relationship where we freely, without shame, call God our Abba, our Father, our Daddy. That is what it means to be justified before God.

So, in the calm and peace of this first Sunday after Christmas, I call upon us to realize that our struggle with the Law is over. I call upon us all to embrace God as our Daddy once more.

In this place, at this time, we are free from lists and calendars and activities. We are free to just "be" with our God.

I call upon us to be silent, to rest in God's Love, and to realize that the Meaning of Life has become flesh. In Him, God has looked us in the eye and given us His Word:

"I will never leave you or forsake you. I am yours forever."

2009-12-17

Thoughts on the Presiding Bishop's Visit


On the weekend of December 12-13th both Canterbury House SMU and Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church (hereafter SMAA) were visited by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori (hereafter +KJS) and the longest-ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion, Bill Frey (hereafter +Frey). At SMAA, +KJS and +Frey talked about "Who is Christ for me?" and "Who is Christ for the world?". In this, +Frey represented a voice of "conservative" Anglicanism, particularly with his long standing association with the charismatic renewal movement, and his teaching experience at Trinity School for Ministry (an Evangelical Episcopal Seminary). +KJS, on the other hand, was a voice of "liberal" or "progressive" Anglicanism, with an emphasis on social and ecological justice, which has been one of the hallmarks of her ministry as Presiding Bishop. It was great to see two bishops who represent two different strands in the Anglican tapestry come together to discuss the Person at the Core of Anglicanism: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

After the discussion at SMAA, we hosted +KJS for a community wide Eucharist at Canterbury collegiate chapel. This was followed by a visit from +Frey on Sunday night. Both preached and celebrated Eucharist with our young adults and others who were gathered each night. Since I got to see and hear both of them up close and personal, I have been asked by many people what I thought, especially about +KJS. For those who may not know, some in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas tend to have a bit of opposition toward the Presiding Bishop and the "National Church", so it is with some controversy that +KJS was here. So, for those who want to know what I thought, read on:

Regarding the Presiding Bishop Visit to Canterbury on December 12th:

As far as her visit to Canterbury goes, the event went awesome. +KJS did an excellent job of interacting with the young adults and making my folks feel special, especially as she stood in a circle talking to them for about 30 minutes. Out of the whole weekend, this pastoral interaction pleased me the most. They were very excited to have her come, just as they were excited when former Archbishop George Carey came to visit last November, when the Archbishop-elect of Uganda came last Spring, and when +Frey came the following night. In fact, since +KJS was here on Saturday and +Frey was here on Sunday, for largely identical services, these events gave my students a great experience of the breadth of Anglicanism.

In addition, +KJS was very pleasant, and actually showed a sense of humor which I had not seen before. Her homily was spot on, and could have comfortably been preached by any Creedal clergyperson in the world. It was solid and clearly rooted in the spirituality of Advent and Christ's Incarnation. Her liturgical style was quite a bit "lower" than I practice. But, she is a graduate from a "low church" seminary after all. Her vestments were, as always, festive and interesting. [;-)] My folks played their parts well, and the music was fabulous. It was a great night all around. It was a delight to show Christian hospitality to our Presiding Bishop, and to receive it right back from her.

As far as the +KJS / +Frey discussion at SMAA goes:

You know, I have mixed feelings about this weekend. I am firmly Incarnational and Trinitarian (=Creedal), so I think some of her statements were a bit soft in the discussion. At the same time, I have gone to seminary with students and professors who are Unitarians and Pantheists, and her statements about Jesus' divinity were much, much further than they would be willing to go. She was clearly in the Trinitarian/Incarnational camp, but with a hesitant, empirical, "scientific" cast to the way she expressed it.

She affirmed Jesus as the "Divine Architect" and "The Second Person of the Trinity", as well as affirming a few times that it was the entire course of Christ's life that was salvific. In this, she explicitly affirmed Christ's historic birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. In her argumentation style, I was actually reminded of how +William Temple carefully constructed his arguments in a scientific manner. Thus, I am fairly comfortable with her Christology, although I personally would speak in a less reserved manner about Jesus as both our Lord and God. However, at the end, when she was asked about the bodily resurrection, she recounted the Biblical narratives of Jesus appearing and eating with the disciples, and then said "that is how they experienced it, but I was not there". I was not satisfied with her lack of specificity, and the lack of personal ownership she expressed in that answer, and wish she had gone further.

In the discussion, she spoke of Jesus going to hell and "turning it upside down to look for Judas". I realize where she was trying to go with statements about Jesus emptying hell, and going in search of Judas, which are rooted in Alexandrian-Cappadocian theology of Apokatastasis in the 3rd-6th centuries. For those who do not know, Apokatastasis is an Eastern Orthodox, Christ-centered, redemptive vision of hell and ultimate reconciliation of all Creation in Jesus Christ. She, along with +Frey, also drew heavily on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis/deification, in which salvation is primarily a personal union with God, by which the individual comes to share in God's life through Christ without "merging" or loosing personal identity. A favorite Orthodox analogy is how a sword may be plunged into a fire so that it glows and takes on the fire's energy, without actually merging and becoming the same as the fire. We are the sword, and we come to be infilled with God's energy as we draw near to Christ in Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.

However, I don't think she clearly laid the groundwork to explain and use these concepts. For instance, she quoted Athanasius "God became human so that humans might become divine", and said things such as "[Jesus] is the ultimate sacrament of God" embodied in a human person. These ideas could be (and have been!) misinterpreted by people that seem to have little familiarity with the Orthodox Theological sources she is drawing from. I will confess that I personally am sympathetic to the Incarnational, Apokatastatic Trinitarianism that we find in the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory,Gregory, and Basil) as well as Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", as well as Irenaeus' recapitulatory atonement theories. So, even though +KJS did not fully or clearly explain what she was referencing, I am sympathetic to that theology for many of the same reasons I am sympathetic to theNicene Creed and its unique construction (for instance, using homo-ousias instead of homoi-ousias, etc.). Both were authored by the same group of people: The Alexandrians and Cappadocians.

Her comment on "Green Jesus" and Christ's mission of Liberation to ALL Creation was perhaps her least explained reference. It is clear that Jesus is a prophet of Liberation (and also God Incarnate!), when we read references like Luke 4.18-19. If I were trying to make her point, I first of all would not use an adjective (Green or otherwise) to describe our Lord. He is who He is without adjectival attribution. Second of all, I would make the point that God's justice for individuals is tied to creating more just structures in society, and that in turn is connected with how we, as societies, steward the Creation that has been loaned to us by God.

Then I would probably then argue that the inherent basis of Consumer Capitalism is the "profit motive", which is nothing other than the vice of greed writ large in nice handwriting. I would point out that we need to establish another basis for our economic and political system than this vice (maybe love or justice?), lest our whole economic-political system will implode upon our heads with thunderous crash. And then I would tie that back into the process of Evangelism, in which we bring individuals and communities into relationship with the God who is Love (not greed!) through Jesus Christ. So, on the "Green Jesus" I applaud the idea she was trying to get at, even if I would not use her route or wording to get there.

Swimming beneath the surface of +KJS's lectures seemed to be a profound discomfort with ontology and metaphysics, and her value of concrete action which liberates real people in real situations. I think she comes by this honestly from two directions: Both as someone trained in science, and who has "come of age" in postmodernity. Both the strength and weakness of her training as a scientist is that such training necessarily focuses on the particular, the empirically measurable, and the quantifiable. Thus, it is with great reserve that she theologically jumps from particularity toabstract forms, metaphysics and ontology. This kind of "bottom up" view of theology is common among the great scientist-theologians of the Anglican tradition, notably +William Temple, and more recent folks like John Polkinghorne+.

In addition, she seems clearly affected by the postmodern critique of ontology. If the scientific critique of ontology is that it tends to explain more than the evidence warrants, the postmodern critique is that such explanations tend to be an ideological mask that power hides behind to oppress others. And, anyone who is honest will see the validity of both critiques, taken in measure. Often, static ontologies of eternal unchanging structures lead to violence against those who will not conform to "The Ontology" (as can be clearly seen in examples ranging from Catholic hierarchy to Marxist liberation to Nazi fascism to Cutthroat Consumerism). Static ontologies make what is "really Real" into some unchanging, unseen system, which is then appropriated by those who can use it to legitimize their oppression and exclusion of "the other". This leads to a cultural/worldview system which stuffs Reality into the "box" of the ontology, thereby cutting off limbs of the Body to make it fit.

I rehearsed this fairly standard scientific and postmodern critique of static ontologies to make it clear why some, such as +KJS, feel uncomfortable setting down "Absolute, Objective, Metaphysical Ontologies" which declare how Reality MUST be, prior to ever encountering Reality as it really is. But, perhaps there is a way out. What if ontology is dynamic, and not static? What if there is indeed a "Metaphysical Absolute", but one which is relational, active, and living? I would propose that the way through the scientific and postmodern critique of ontology, which was embedded in +KJS's theology, is found precisely in the Metaphysical Ontology of the Trinity.

The ontology of the Holy Trinity would lead one to the belief that "Ultimate Reality" is not something static, but Someone who is dynamic, relational, living, interpenetrating, dancing, emerging, and self-giving: Someone who is Love. In short, the dynamic ontology that grounds the Universe is none other than the Triune God, who eternally loves in perichoresis shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and overflows into the creation and redemption of all things. This idea is made most accessible for me by Roman Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft in lectures such as thisand this. This emergent, dynamic, relational, Triune ontology provides a sure metaphysical basis to ground "traditional" theological concepts like Incarnation, the Body of Christ, and sacraments, as well as more "contemporary" theological concerns like liberation, inclusion, and justice.

Overall, what interested me about the lectures was how +KJS was so rigorously Scriptural (in the first lecture) and so rigorously traditional in the Eastern Orthodox sense (in the second lecture). And +Frey was based almost entirely in personal experience. These roles were "reverse" of what we would expect from a "conservative" and a "liberal". In fact, +Frey made some theological moves that are typically very "liberal", such as saying:
  • In regards to judging the salvific status of non-Christians: "We have to let God be God…"
  • In regards to missionaries going to "unreached" places to share the Gospel: "[Christ] is already there, often anonymously."
  • "If our Trinitarian theology is even remotely correct, we can't run into God without bumping into Jesus."
  • "[Jesus] came to destroy religion and open the Father's heart to the world."
All of this is pretty radical. And both of them ended in an expansive vision of Christ's Personal and Global redemption, with a strong emphasis on Social Justice. I loved that. By the end of the lecture, it seemed that in most ways, both +Frey and +KJS were describing the same Jesus, but using two different languages (and as we know, when we compare any two languages, such as Greek and Hebrew, we find that each has it's strengths and weaknesses in what it can express and what it has trouble expressing).

With that said, I know she had her "Dallas persona" in full play, and not her "New York persona". It would be a sin against charity to speculate on which persona of hers is more "genuine", if either, so I will leave that to God. But I will note that she, like nearly everyone I know including myself, does change her persona depending on who we are speaking to. For instance, my collegiate sermons are different than my sermons to older folks which are different than my sermons to kids. In addition, this blog article has undergone four different major revisions as I sent it to various people, and finally prepped it for "public" posting.

The thing that did not come up this weekend was, of course, Church politics, gay unions, gay ordination, women's ordination, how the "National Church" handles dissenting groups, and how dissenting groups handle non-dissenters (and each other!). That, of course, colors how one looks at the whole thing. I honestly don't have much to say about that other than that I think all sides involved exhibit exceptional degrees of gracelessness and truth manipulation, through gossip and public legal action (this among Christians!). For instance, here is one example and then another, among countless that could be named. So, I am not attracted to any "party" in this debate. If I go further into specifics, it will only result in being labelled by both sides as one of the other sides, so I will decline to go further. The best I can do is work where I am at, with the people God has given me, to help them know Jesus and grow into all his fullness. So, that is what I will do, so help me God.

2009-12-01

Which Holy Crap Must Go?


A friend sent me an incredible article by Walter Russell Mead called "The Holy Crap Must Go". Well, this article struck quite a chord with me. So, I wound up writing a whole lot...

Initially, when reading his rant about being property-laden and bureaucracy bound, I was cheering along with him. I think acquisition of property and power is the besetting sin of Christendom, and it is at the root of so much of what is wrong with the "Christendom Model" of doing things (where we tend to treat persons as property, while giving our property the status of persons... But I digress).

So, the first several paragraphs were singing my song. And I do not want the rest of my critique to overshadow my MASSIVE agreement with him on the property and bureaucracy issues.

In the second half of the article, he began a critique of clerical training and the clerical profession.

I think clergy as "profession" is a rather unhelpful category inherited from the corporate world which needs to be dismissed almost entirely. "Profession" is a frame, or container, to hold a set of ethical norms and specialized practices which are unique to ordained life. Unfortunately, "profession" is also necessarily caught up with the idea of success, forward progress, and increasing status which is measured in economically quantifiable terms (i.e. money received, butts in seats, etc.).

If we use the concept of "profession" to measure the ministry of Peter, or Paul, or Jesus for that matter, then what we find is that they were dismal failures. Not only did they fail to keep up "professional" decorum (read Matthew 23 or Galatians, for example), but their ministries ended as numerical and financial failures, including their own deaths.

Yet, quite obviously they were successful in non-economic, and non-immediate terms. People do not gather on a weekly basis to remember any of the Caesars, Alexander the Great, or even Henry Ford. But they do for Jesus and his followers.

Also: Implicit, incipient in the concept of "profession" is an inherent slant TOWARD economic, quantifiable measures to judge the "success" or "failure" of ministry. If being clergy is a profession, then the most successful practitioners of that profession necessarily have larger buildings, bigger budgets, and more attendance. It is true of the Mainline infrastructures formed in the 20th century, and it is true of the Megachurch infrastructures formed now. All of them will collapse under their own professional weight.

So, I think a hidden key to this entire discussion resides at the heart of clerical identity itself. In fact, the best category to place "clergy" is not in the box labelled "profession", but in the box labelled "vocation" or "calling" or "mission" or "vision" or just plain old "identity".

To be ordained as a deacon/minister, or as presbyter/priest, or (God help you!) as bishop/overseer is not to enter into a "profession" with a series of "benchmarks" you must pass as you advance up the "corporate ladder" to "success". To be ordained to any of the clerical orders is to receive a new identity and a new life-mission as a member of Christ's one holy catholic apostolic Church.

If we think of the Church as a Family (which it is), becoming clergy is to become a spiritual parent who has responsibility and response-ability to nourish, protect, and raise into maturity other members of the Family. If we think of the Church as a Body (which it is), becoming clergy is to become part of the "skeletal system" which provides support, structure, and boundaries so that the other organs of the Body can function and move and reach out to the world around them.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. If we think in terms of clerical "identity", "vision" and "vocation" (instead of "profession"), then we begin to measure clerical "success" in qualitative, spiritual terms rather than quantitative, economic terms. A faithful, consistent ministry will be valued more than a ministry that built a 3000 seat worship center. Mother Teresa will be valued more than Joel Olsteen.

Like it or not, the clergy provide for the structure and continuance of the Church as a recognizable entity. And, the manner in which clergy provide that structure and continuance is largely a matter of how clergy are FORMED in their identity.

If you form clergy to have a quasi-theological ideal of clergy as "profession", then they will structure and continue the Church by building large buildings, and forming complex bureaucratic systems, as evidence of their "success". But, if you form clergy to have a deeply theological sense of clergy as "vocation/vision/identity", then they will continue the Church by mission, by preaching, by catechesis, by raising up missionally minded lay leaders who take Jesus with them into their families, workplaces, marketplaces, and civic responsibilities.

And all of this ties into what I think is the BIGGEST FLAW in the article: His demeaning of clerical education. It is almost as if he has taken a page out of Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" to say "If you can read, you can lead".

The truth is, we need better clergy formation, not worse. We need better clergy formation because, at the least, clergy come out thinking being clergy is a "profession" rather than a "vocation". While this may be one small issue, it reflects a deep bias in the way in which most seminaries- even good ones- train clergy. It like saying that, when you reduce Christian ministry and mission down far enough, you find "it's all about the economy, stupid".

And that is the besetting sin of American culture: To reduce, flatten, all of reality into strictly economic terms. Income versus expenses. The ledger. Cost / benefit analysis. The bottom line. We read all of history this way, either with a Capitalist or a Marxist spin to it (depending on which news channel you decide to watch!).

We need clergy to be educated so that they can effectively think, preach, teach, and pray outside of the box of American consumerism, with its devastating reduction of all facets of life to strictly economic terms. We need a clergy that can think theologically, rather than merely economically. We need a clergy that can think historically, rather than just in terms of marketing psychology. We need a clergy that can see all of life in terms of God's Mission, rather than in terms of the market.

And while he may be right that "An increasingly well-educated and independent minded society doesn’t need as much guidance from professionals as it used to. Curious parishioners can get many of their religious and theological questions answered on line..." This does NOT mean that they are getting good information. Nor does it mean that they are analyzing that information from the right vantage point. Dump all the theological information you want on someone thoroughly enmeshed in a consumeristic worldview. All you will get out of them is an economic-marketplace analysis of that data. For real worldview transformation, mentoring and pastoral care is required so that a person can "see" another way of living embodied in another person.

I think that one of the comments on his post was very telling: "The core spiritual ideas of the Society of Friends would work very well in the kind of local, people centered approach." And they are right. Quakers/Society of Friends are the original form of contentless, make-your-own-way, super-individualistic, semi-buddhist-quasi-christian, church-that-is-not-a-church. His approach leads to a lowest-common-denominator kind of Church where Christianity is a contentless spirituality that is anything to any body. There is no one authorized to speak on Christ's behalf, and no historical or theological reflection really guided by anyone. Rather, "church" becomes a cafeteria spirituality developed from articles on Wikipedia which re-capituates every heresy and schism over the last 2000 years.

For real transformation of people and communities, what is required is a cadre of well-trained "organic intellectuals" who are able to envision life outside of the world system we are in, and lead people in that vision to personal and communal transformation. These "organic intellectuals" need to speak both the language of the people, but also the language of the vision. They need to be implanted into the communities they serve, to incarnate the vision to those around them. These organic intellectuals need to have a personally felt sense of mission and vocation, which gives them clarity of mission, even in the midst of hardships and apparent failure.

This language of "organic intellectuals" was developed by Antonio Gramschi, a Communist theorist, at the beginning of the 20th century. But I think it describes well the vocation of clergy, and what clergy training is needed to empower them for their mission.

So, we need better clergy education and formation.

This starts by selecting people for clergy formation who HAVE ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion. We need to stop selecting people who have little or no Christian formation, and even less ministry experience, and then thinking that seminary will somehow "fix" the problem and give them an authentic spirituality by the time they graduate.

To reduce student debt and increase pastoral practicality, I think we should probably make use of a hybrid parish-and-seminary system of education. For more "cognitive" classes on Scripture, History, and Systematics we rely on seminary professors in a classroom setting. For more "practical" classes on Liturgy, Pastoral Care, and Administration we rely on practicing clergy in the local diocese who have been identified as particularly effective in those areas. Perhaps a local parish (the Cathedral?) might be designated as a "clinical parish" where ordinands run the ministries under the mentoring of a very experienced priest or two. Maybe it could even be a quasi-cloistered environment for the ordinands.

And did I mention that if a denomination calls a person into the ordination process, they are morally bound to pay for the costs associated with education? We would consider it immoral for a wealthy person to demand that a their workers pay them for the honor of working for them full time. Yet, we send ordinands to work full time for 3 or more years in seminary, and pay for it all themselves, or go into crippling seminary debt, and then expect them to take jobs that can't pay for their families and their debt. And we wonder why people don't want to become clergy.

And I haven't even critiqued the 5-10 year hazing ritual that we call "the ordination process". The "hoops" are supposed to be there to weed out bad apples from ordination. But, there are plenty of bad apples who make it through the process, and plenty of good apples who see how messed up the Church is and bid adieu to ordination. And, if we only called people into ordination who ALREADY demonstrated significant gifts for ministry by actually DOING ministry in a sustained fashion, then most of the bad apples would be gone by the sheer nature of what it takes to actually DO ministry rather than just talk about it.

So, in contrast to the article, I say that clergy need better education and formation. Not longer. Not more costly. But better. Education that better enables them to grasp the vision of clerical identity and clerical vocation.

If we heal this wound- the wound of trying to make the Church into a "professional" world, run by "professional" clergy, which is successful by "professional" socio-economic measures- then the Church can be reformed and the holy crap can be thrown out. It will be thrown out because clergy will start to see ministry in terms of vocation and vision, and will form communities of Christ-followers who live into such a vision, and they will naturally jettison all of the "holy crap" so they can continue with Jesus' mission to heal the world.

2009-11-30

A Camaro with the License Plate "Allah"

[not an actual picture of car, but one just like it]

So, I'm coming out of the coffee shop, and I see behind us: A Candy apple red 1992 camaro with personalized license plate "ALLAH". No kidding. Apparently God rolls In a muscle car…

So, my buddy Bret says "Perhaps Western Capitalism is wearing down even Muslim extremists? After all, it is a very enticing idol."

That got me thinking…

This raises a great irony for me. On one hand, societies that are [nominally] "Christian" have been the ones who are the largest exporters of colonialism and consumerism. Both of which are explicitly condemned by Christ, who, by the way, is the God who "emptied himself", became a slave, and was crucified [cf. Phil 2.]. In short, Christ, even though perfectly obedient, was spectacularly "unsuccessful" in consumer terms. So, the basis of our "Christian worldview"- Christ Himself- is in fact antithetical to the social system it is used to uphold.

However, on the other hand, in Islam, God remains ever-transcendent, never enters into human affairs directly, and explicitly promises material prosperity in return for obedience to Quran. Furthermore, the life of Muhammed (PBUH) and his early followers shows that Islam can be rightly spread "at sword point" to unwilling peoples. So, Islam would seem to be the perfect divine under-writing for both colonialism and consumerism. And yet, extreme Muslims, whatever else their faults may be, at least are able to identify and decry the sickness in postmodern Western consumer society.

Now this is what I call a paradox.

But, as Bret noted, perhaps this paradox is shrinking away under the commodifying leer of the consumer monster.

2009-11-07

FOR ALL THE SAINTS


A Sermon For All Saints, Year ABC
Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian

I bring good news from the fabled land beyond Perkins, beyond midterms, beyond papers, beyond Credos, beyond internship, and even beyond graduation: There is light at the end of the tunnel my brothers and sisters!

If I made it through, you can too! Really… Ask my professors. And I made it through with my sanity intact. Sort of. Well, I did made it through.

Anyway…

Today we come together to celebrate that rare and elusive creature in Christian culture: The Saint. Or, to be more exact, all Saints. Every single one of them.

In fact, you could say that today we come together to celebrate those who stand at a far bigger podium and say to us:

"We bring good news from the fabled land beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond trials, and even beyond tribulations: There is Light at the end of the tunnel brothers and sisters!

And if we made it through, you can too!"

In fact, in the readings for our Feast Day in the Revised Common Lectionary, I think we find this theme woven throughout the texts: The idea that there IS hope, there IS something beyond the struggles we face now... There IS a final "graduation", so to speak.

Whatever else may be said about our reading from Revelation- and there is A LOT that could be said- it is clear that the author wants to assure us that those who live AND die in Christ will have a place with God and all the saints.

A place where God, in all of God's fullness, will finally be at home among humanity, dwelling with the saints forever, as God "wipes every tear from their eyes" so that "death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

And whatever else may be said about the Gospel reading from John- and there is A LOT that could be said there too- it is clear that John wants to show us that Jesus has the power to assure us of this hope.

Jesus is revealed as the embodiment of the Love that is stronger than death, a Love that can literally summon the dead back to life. Jesus is the one who makes concrete, tangible, and accessible this hope for something beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond "normal" life.

And while this hope for our final "graduation" is all good, and true, and beautiful, I think it misses something important to our celebration of All Saints. Because Saints are not just a kind of "down payment" for an eventual life with Christ BEYOND this life.

Even more importantly, Saints are an invitation to Christ-likeness in THIS life.

Saints are notorious examples of conspicuous sanctity. Saints show us glimpses of what can happen when Jesus really takes hold in a person, and the Christ-life begins to take over.

Above all, Saints are lovers. Passionate lovers. Head over heels lovers. People crazy in love with God, and crazy to share God's Love with everyone they can.

Can you imagine what would really happen if the all-consuming Love of God were to burn within your heart?

Can you imagine what it might be like if the Life that brought Lazarus back from the dead began to resurrect the dead parts of your life?

Can you imagine what might happen if Jesus were to look straight into YOUR face and speak the words "Unbind her, and let her go!"

Well, if you can imagine such a thing, I confess your imagination is a bit bigger than mine. Because I can't imagine it. Not on my own.

But saints help with that. What I cannot imagine, God can. And what God imagines, God does. And I see THAT in the lives of the great Saints- those women and men who have burned with the passion of Christ's undying Love.

Most of us here know that, in one sense, we are all saints. Saints with a small "s". Scripture and Christian tradition says that all of God's people are "set apart", "consecrated", "sanctified", and "made holy". And that is what saint means: A set apart, sanctified, consecrated, holy one of God.

But, unless we are blind, it is clear to see that some of us are better at living into this than others. All God's children are saints with a small "s", but we recognize those who are exceptionally Christlike with a capital "S".

It is these men and women- these Saints with a capital "S"- who claim our imagination, as we try to envision what the Christ-life looks like lived out.

In fact, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Saint is actually CS Lewis' definition of what a Christian is. For Lewis, a Christian is a Christ-ian, a little christ, a little embodiment of the Divine Life that lives in Jesus. A Saint is a little christ.

A Saint is not primarily someone who does miracles and healings, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint is not primarily a theologian who plumbs the depths of scholarly knowledge, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint is not even primarily a mystic who climbs the heights of visionary ecstasy, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint IS primarily a living embodiment of Love, a little christ who re-presents the Christ-life to the world.

Have you ever seen someone whose eyes radiate God's Light with every glance? Who exuded Love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and kindness and faith and humility and wisdom with every deed? That was a Saint.

Have you ever been around someone whose very presence assured you that God does indeed Love you and can use you, no matter how many flaws and foibles you have? That was a Saint.

Have you ever read a writer who did all of these things? A writer whose words leapt off of the page, causing you to imagine new possibilities of how this Christ-life can infect our lives, our churches, our communities, and our world? That was a Saint.

We tend to think of Saints as lofty and unapproachable and incredibly impractical. But I believe that the actual purpose of Saints in God's plan is humble and approachable and completely practical.

In fact, I believe Saints are a remedy for some of our most besetting sins in the Church, and in the Seminary.

And here is why: We like ideas and plans and programs and property and power. No, let me be honest. I like ideas and plans and programs and property and power.

And when I hear of "sanctity" and "holiness" and becoming a "little christ", the first thing I want to do is turn it into a study committee. Let's get together and come up with the ten main ideas about what it means to be holy.

That's step one. Step two is that we create a plan. How do we accomplish these ten concepts? What are our objectives? What are our benchmarks?

Step three: Let's create a program to accomplish it, complete with steps that rhyme, and some acronyms to boot.

Step four: Let's brand it and market it.

Step five: Let's get property and infrastructure to support the business model.

Step six: Let's clarify a contract to define who is "in" and who is "out" of our program, and make sure the power structure is clear.

Step seven: Let's fight each other over the concept, the brand, the program, the power, and above all the property.

Step eight: Let's sue each other. In Christ's Name, of course.

Sound familiar?

I know that was horribly reductionistic and completely unfair. But something LIKE this often happens, on the Right, on the Left, in the High Church, in the Low Church.

It has happened, and is happening, and will happen, anytime we reduce holiness to checklists and ideologies and loose sight of authentic holiness embodied in Christ and his Saints.

This is because it is easy to make holiness into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical. And, as any Biblical scholar can tell you, it is also easy to make Christ into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical.

I personally love the abstract and theoretical. I love ideas and systems. But Saints stand before us as actual, definite, practical witnesses of what holiness looks and feels like.

What we need, is to see Jesus with skin on. We need to feel Love embodied. That's where Saints come in.

So Saints are embarrassingly concrete embodiments of what it means to be holy, of what it means to live God's Love.

Saints are the ones who can speak Truth to power, and minister Healing to pain. Saints remind us that our life in God cannot be formulated into a simplistic plan, nor turned into some perfect program.

Saints show us that life in Christ is messy yet magnificent, and there is no shortcut, no express elevator, no inside route to holiness. The only Way to Holiness is the Way of Christ, the Way of becoming a little christ.

In fact, I wonder what would happen if we applied this definition of sainthood to everything we do in the Name of Christ.

What if we judged everything we do as Christians by whether or not it produces saints, whether or not it creates little christs?

Do our methods of reading and explaining the Bible produce saints?

Do our doctrines and doctrinal systems create little christs?

Does our teaching and preaching and catechizing draw us into Christ or make us less Christlike?

Do our liturgies and spiritual practices encourage us to live out God's Love?

Do our efforts at outreach and programs for Social Justice create Christlike communities?

Do our leadership structures facilitate or hinder saint production?

Do our controversies and squabbles and infighting produce holiness?

What if passionate, Christlike holiness was the key criteria for how we did everything as Christians. What might change?

[Pause]

At this point I want to quote at length the best sermon I have ever read about saints by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. Although I disagree with him on many things, about the Saints we are in complete agreement:

"The deepest reason why the Church is weak, and the world is dying, is that there are not enough saints... No, that's not quite honest. The reason is that WE are not saints.

Can you imagine what ten more Mother Teresas would do for this world? Or ten more John Wesleys? No, you can't imagine it, any more than you could imagine how twelve nice Jewish boys could conquer the Roman Empire.

You can't imagine it. But you CAN do it. You CAN become a saint. Absolutely no one and nothing can stop you. It's your totally free choice…

If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one, and only one reason why you are not, even now, as saintly as the primitive Christians: You do not wholly WANT to be.


That insight is terrible because it is an indictment, but at the same time it is wonderful and hopeful because it is also an offer, an open door. Each of us can become a saint. We really CAN. We REALLY can.

I say it three times because I think we do not really believe it. For if we did, how could we endure being anything less?

...The human soul is a tube, like a tunnel connecting two places, heaven and earth. If the tube is open and empty and hungry on the heavenly end, to suck grace in, then and only then will the tube be full like a cornucopia on the earthly end to pour grace out.

[An] American Catholic bishop [once] commissioned one of the priests of his diocese to write up recommendations for ways to increase the number of [people] seeking to fulfill a clerical vocation.

The priest was young, but wise and holy. He concluded his report this way: "The best way to attract [people] in this diocese to the priesthood, Your Excellency, would be your canonization."

When we see a saint, we know the purpose of our own lives. Saints reproduce themselves simply by being what they are.

So why can't you be canonized- become a saint?

...It's embarrassingly simple. We have been promised, by God incarnate, that all who seek, find. In other words, "just say yes," "just DO it".

It's infinitely simple, and that's why it's hard. The hard part in the formula "just say yes" is the first word: "just". We are comfortable with Christ AND ourselves, or Christ AND our theology, or Christ AND our psychology, or Christ AND our country, or Christ AND our politics, or Christ AND culture, or [even] Christ AND counterculture;

But just plain Christ, Christ drunk straight and not mixed, is far too dangerous for us." [Peter Kreeft, How To Win The Culture War, pages 102-106]

So says Peter Kreeft. But is he right? IS just plain Christ too dangerous for us? Are we ready for Christ, the whole Christ, to infect us with His Divine Life and turn us into little christs?

We are about to approach His table once again, to partake in an ancient ritual, where we encounter this Christ in the breaking of the bread, and the drinking of the cup.

We are literally invited to the banquet table with Jesus, to drink him straight and un-mixed. With our bodies, with our mouths and our lips, with our hearts and our minds, we get to literally invite Christ once again to fill us with God's life.

Christ's invitation is here for you. He invites you to become a saint, a Christ-ian, a little christ. His invitation always stands, and never changes.

What about you? As you come forward to partake in this Holy Communion, and share in Christ's life, what is YOUR invitation to him? Amen+

[Silence]

AFFIRMATION: And now, with saints who have gone before, saints who stand with us now, and saints yet to come, let us affirm together the faith of the Church by using the words of the Nicene Creed…

What does it mean to be human?


A Sermon For Year B, Proper 22
Copyright © 2008 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-9


What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman or a man who is made in the image of God?

When biology explains the origin and function of our physical bodies; When psychology describes the workings of our minds; When consumerism is used to manipulate our behavior and buying patterns: What is left of being human?

Is there anything special to our existence? Anything that separates us from beasts or birds or rocks or molecules or corporations?

You see, we live in a world that is often reductionistic. It is our habit, for some centuries now, to reduce human life to "nothing but".

We've all heard it before. We are nothing but the products of our environment. Or nothing but our genetics. Or nothing but how we are raised. Or nothing but electro-chemical reactions in our brains. Or nothing but a reflection of cultural expectations.

Often the people who tell us this are well meaning. They are people who have studied human life long and hard. And they finally think they have THE KEY to understanding who we are, and what it means to be human.

So they share THE KEY with us, in hopes that it will make life understandable, manageable, and predictable. And, let's be honest: Who among us would not like life better, if we could understand what is going on just a little bit more?

But, we are now several centuries into the quest of science to exhaustively explain what it means to be human. Thousands of theories of "nothing but" have come and past. And we are still as confused as ever.


We can never say exactly why one child turns into an Adolf Hitler, and another child turns into a Mother Teresa. We stand perplexed by people who have everything and fail, while others have nothing, and succeed.

And we just can't seem to scientifically create the perfect society full of virtuous people, free of tragedy and oppression. If anything, after a century of two world wars, dozens of genocides, and countless disasters, we seem more confused than ever.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think science is a great thing. I like modern medical care, and refrigeration, and flush toilets, and cell phones. Science has told us a great deal about how we work, and how to fix us.

But science just doesn't have the tools to tell us WHY we are here. Reductionism, nothing-but-ism, cannot seem to reduce the complexity of WHO we are.

Science may be able to tell us a great deal about HOW we got here. It can tell us of big bangs, and origins of species, and mechanisms for biological change over time.

But knowing our origins does not tell us our destiny. Knowing how does not mean knowing why. Knowing what does not mean knowing who. And all of the science in the world is not able to answer the question "Why is there something instead of nothing"?

Of course, poets and prophets have been prattling on about this for millennia. They have been telling us that humans can observe and explain everything, except ourselves. They have been preaching that there is more to life than meets the eye.

But poets and prophets are a strange lot, so we tend to ignore them if possible. As a result we often get into cultural wars of "either-or". Either science or spirituality. Either reason or faith. Either we are explained away as "nothing but" or we are not explained at all.

But it isn't just the occasional oddball who says that there is more to human nature than meets the reductionistic eye. Not a few scientists have said the same thing.

It was no one less than Physicist Albert Einstein who said "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind". And it was Blaise Pascal, the inventor of calculus- thanks Blaise!- who said "The heart has reasons that reason cannot know".

And they are just two of a steadily growing voice across history that has said that human life is NOT reductionistic. It is not "either-or". Rather, it is "both-and". We know what it means to be human by BOTH science AND spirituality, BOTH reason AND faith.

They complete one another. They are two sides of the same coin. Two dimensions of the same reality.

And it is this "both-and" understanding that allows us to listen to Scriptures like our readings today, to find out about what it means to be human. Because we believe that in them, God breaks through into our world to tell us things about ourselves, that we cannot learn by our own observation, no matter how scientific.

In the Creation poem that is written one chapter before our Genesis reading today, we hear the divinely inspired poet tell us that God said:

“Let us make humanity in our image… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

This God is spoken of in paradoxical and poetic ways as a Divine Person who speaks a Word of Creation, and then forms chaos into order through the work of God's Breath, the Divine Spirit.

So this God is One Reality who exists in some sort of Community as Creator, and Word, and Breath of God. This God speaks as a Community and says "Let US create humanity in OUR image". And then when humanity is created, we are created as community: As male and female together, sharing in the image of God.

This paradox of the One God in Community is made clearer through the experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the early Church. This eventually came to be known as the Trinity: The One God who exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing in each other's Love for all eternity.

So when God breaks into history to tell us about what it means to be human, it turns out that our human nature is actually a picture of God's nature. And God is Love, shared between the Creator, the creative Word, and the Breath of God.

And that's where we are at when we get to the second Creation story of Genesis, which we read today. It is this story that tells us about woman as a "helper" to man, and about how they become one flesh.

And immediately following this, we hear the passage from Mark, in which Jesus gives commentary on the same text, using it as the basis for his teaching on the tragedy of divorce.

Now, I speak to you today as someone who has gone through divorce, both as a child of divorced parents and grandparents, and as someone who has been married twice myself. I know from experience how difficult these texts can be on this issue. And I know that when these texts are read, the first thing I expect is a sermon on marriage, gender, and divorce.

But instead of this, I want to listen to what these texts have to say first and foremost about what it means to be human. Because I think it is only by understanding what it means to be human that we can begin to understand why our human relationships- whether they are marriage or friendship or any relationship that shares God's Love- why they are important.

So, the first thing we hear in our Genesis reading is that it is not good for the human to be alone. And this is weird, because after every day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God said: It is good… It is good… It is good.

Now, suddenly, something is not good. Something is not complete. Something is missing. The question is: Why? Why is it not good?

It is not good because humans were made for community. They were made to be images of the God who IS Love and shares Love in community forever.

Our world often stresses that we are individuals first. We are individual consumers, with individual tastes and needs, and individual skills that we must use in the marketplace to maximize our value. We must individually find ourselves, and individually makes ourselves into who we want to be.

But Scripture begins with a fundamentally different starting point. It does not deny that we are individuals. In Genesis God calls individuals like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Hagar, and Rebekah.

But, God's revelation does not start with humans first as individuals, but with humans as community. And not just a community of people who are the same as each other. But as man and woman, a community of people fundamentally different from each other.

I know we are all used to it by now, but sit back and think about what a monumental difference that is. What bigger natural difference could there be than the average woman and the average man. We are shaped different. We think different. We communicate different. We operate on different biological clocks. We use the bathroom different.

And sometimes some of us forget to put the lid down when we're done.

Just think about it: Not only did God create us in God's image as a Community, but God created us as different kinds of persons bound inextricably in relationship with one another.

Our natural inclination is to think of our individual self first, and then only relate to people who are like us. But who we are is quite the opposite. We become who we are only in community, only by loving people who are different than we are.

And this fundamental difference between man and woman in the Genesis text is a metaphor for ALL the different ways there are to be human: Not only different genders, but different sizes, different ethnicities, different cultures, different skills, different ways of seeing and being in the world.

In fact, it turns out that communities of radically different persons joined together in Love reflects God's fullest intention for what it means to be human. By the time of the early Christian movement, we find Saint Paul writing things like this to the Church in Galatia:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

I often think of being in community with radically different people as a sort of "add on" to who I really am. Something I do to enrich and expand myself, like an extra-curricular activity.

Yet, when I reflect on the God who is Creator, and Word, and Spirit- the God who is a community of radically different persons joined in Love- I find that it is only in this kind of community that I find what it really means to be me.

When we enter into community with people who are different from us, we find that we become helpers to each other, just as the woman was a helper to the man in Genesis. Where one is weak, another is strong. Where one lacks, another has plenty.

Often when we hear that God will make a "helper as his partner" or "helper suitable to him", it is easy to think that the woman is being painted as somehow inferior to, and derivative to, the man.

But when you dive into the Hebrew vocabulary and ask "What does it really mean for the woman to be a helper?", you get a surprising answer. Because the word "helper" used here also refers to one other significant person in the Hebrew Bible.

That person is God.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible God is seen as the Helper who supports, fulfills, and completes human beings. Just as the Psalmist prays: "God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life."

When the poet calls woman a "helper" to man, it is actually a profound theological statement: She is one who completes God's image in humanity, as a supporter and full partner with man.

And again, looking at this through the eyes of the early Church, this role of helper becomes more than just a male-female thing. It becomes the role for all the radically different people who are joined in Love within the Church. In our differences, strengths, and weaknesses, we become helpers to each other. We fulfill the image of God in each other.

Again, Saint Paul- who never seems to be able to keep his mouth shut about this issue- devotes a whole chapter in his letter to the Corinthians explaining what it means to live as different members in the Body of Christ.


He talks about how we are all radically different, but one organism bound together by Christ's Spirit. He says things like: "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable", and "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

Different, yet one. Individuals, but only through community. Helpers, who support and complete and fulfill God's image in each other.

THIS is what it means to be human. THIS is what it means to bear God's image. THIS is why Jesus said things like "the two shall become one flesh", and Paul said things like "you are all members of one Body".

May we all become people who reflect the image of God by seeing God's image in one another. May we all help each other live into all the fullness of God's Life. And may we all remember that human destiny is joined forever with the God who is a community of Love. Amen+

JESUS AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE


Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon For Year B, Proper 12 BCP
Based on 2 Kings 2:1-15, Mark 6:45-52

So, were you REALLY listening to the Gospel Story that just got read today? Were you thinking about what was going on? Did you perhaps imagine what it was like to actually BE in that boat with the disciples, as Jesus came waltzing across the water?

I mean, do you even believe that Jesus could do such a thing? Walk on top of stormy seas without falling in?

I've known many folks who rationally dismiss the whole thing as pietistic propaganda. They say everyone knows that people simply do not walk across water. We don't have the buoyancy. We are a bit top heavy. We tend to sink.

And they lump this story in with just about every other miracle story as propaganda carefully crafted by the early Christians to get people to join the Church.

They believe that miracle stories, especially outrageous miracles like walking on water, are custom tailored to say "Look! My God is bigger than your God! NaNaNaNaNa!"

But I still believe in miracles. I have seen things that defy any attempt at purely rational explanation. I have seen lives healed, people delivered from bondage, and incredible interlocking events that cannot be accurately described by the word "coincidence".

I bet you have experienced events like that too. Miracles.

And, I even believe this miracle happened. I believe it because it doesn't read like propaganda. Propaganda is smooth, rational, carefully argued.

This story is not smooth, or rational, or carefully argued. This story is messy. In the verses before this story, Jesus just fed thousands of people with a handful of food. But, instead of resting- instead of basking in the glow of miraculous success- Jesus orders the disciples to hop in the boat and row to the other side of the lake.

And Jesus goes up to a mountain to pray.

Instead of staying for fame, publicity, and adoring crowds- which is what you would expect from propaganda- Jesus and his disciples leave.

That doesn't make sense. Not if you are interested in propaganda.

Then, with no one around except a boatful of scared, poor, ignorant fishermen- not the kind of people you want as star witnesses if you are testifying before the powers of the world- with no one around but them, Jesus does perhaps his most spectacular miracle.

He literally wills control over the laws of nature, and walks on water like a model walks on a fashion runway. If I was going to craft propaganda, I would do a much better job. I would write about Jesus doing miracles that astonished the powerful, the prosperous, and the important. But this Gospel does just the opposite.

I mean the disciples don't even GET what happens here. They think he is a ghost, a phantasm, an apparition. They are scared stiff. And when he does get in the boat and the storm ceases, they don't get that either. Their hearts are hard, impenetrable, and ignorant.

And it's not like Jesus is hiding anything here. Its all out on the table. When he says "Take heart! It is I!", what he literally says is "Be courageous! I AM!" I AM is the personal name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

That's an incredibly un-subtle way of saying Who he really is. He is I AM. He is God embodied. God undercover. God with us.

But nobody gets it. And that means, if it is propaganda, its really badly written propaganda. Because if there is one thing that propaganda is, it is clear. Propaganda tells you clearly what is good, what is bad, who is in, who is out, which is dark, and which is light.

But there are very few things in this Gospel that are that clear. It is as if someone has all these messy stories of what Jesus did and taught, and they throw them out there, and say: "Here's what I experienced. You decide what to do with it."

In fact, when I read the Gospel of Mark, more than any other Gospel, I get the feel of sitting at the breakfast table talking to my Grandmother, my Mamaw.

Mamaw had all these great stories. And she was old enough not to care what other folks thought of her stories, or of who she was. She just told it like she remembered it. Stream of consciousness. Interjecting whatever came to mind in the middle.

She would tell of what it was like to live in the Great Depression. She would talk of her daddy, the sheriff who rode on horseback in southern Arkansas.

She would talk of being married to a bootlegger during prohibition. She could talk of making ammunition in World War II, of going through desegregation in the 1960's, and of the time she was convinced that the Russians were attacking Little Rock.

And by telling those stories, Mamaw made sense of her life. She shared what she learned, and who she was.

Were all of her stories completely accurate and delivered with scientific precision? Heck no. But were they still true? Did they still happen? Did they still shape the identity of this incredibly interesting person, and her often quirky family? Yes and Yes.

When I read Mark I get this same sense. Its almost as if someone pulled up a chair to the breakfast table with an elderly Peter, or one of the early disciples, and said: "Tell me about how it all started. What was Jesus like?"

And these experiences and stories just pour out…

"Well, there was this time we didn't have no food, and Jesus, he wanted to feed the whole crowd! And we didn't know what to do, till Jesus blessed some bread and fish, and fed the whole bunch of 'em.

"To my dying day, I will never figure out how he did that. Then I tell you what. That man told us to leave right then, and meet him on the other side of the lake. And Jesus did that thing he always did, where he went up on a hilltop and prayed.

"And like it always did, that ol' wind kicked up somethin' fierce. And that's when we saw him. Just strollin' across that ol' lake.

"Only we didn't know it was him at first. I thought it was a ghost. Andrew thought it was an angel. Then we heard that voice say 'Be Courageous! I AM!' Now what kinda person says 'I AM'. Hmmm.

"Then he got up in that boat and everything calmed down. Jesus had a way a' doin' that, y'know. Then we went right on to the other side, where, wouldn't you know it, there were a bunch a sick folks and crazy folks and…"

Have you ever read the Gospels like that? Like you are sitting at the breakfast table with an old friend who is telling stories? Have you ever imagined yourself in the stories, as a participant?

I have this bad habit when I read the Bible, and you may have it too. So, I will share it with you. You see, I often read the Bible to try and prove something. Prove I'm right. Prove someone else is wrong. So, I dissect it and rip it apart until I find just the right piece of evidence to support my case.

Then there are other folks who do the same thing to prove they are right too. And then there's a whole different group of folks who read the Bible in the same way- picking it apart- to try and prove the Bible itself is wrong.

So the Bible gets used like propaganda, to be proven or disproven as it is collected and categorized and analyzed and dissected. No wonder there are so many folks out there who are scared of the Bible and want nothing to do with it. Folks like me have a tendency to use the Bible in a scary way.

But what if that's not the point of the Bible? What if the point is to invite us into IMAGINE ourselves in a story: The Story of a God who enters into History and calls us to Love him and Love each other? What if the key to understanding the Bible is first and foremost our imagination, long before we do any rationalization?

Or, let's look at the same issue from a completely different perspective:

What kind of stories do YOU like telling over the breakfast table? What kind of stories bring a sparkle to your eye and life to your soul? What kind of stories do you get so wrapped up in that you loose time?

Here's the beginning of some stories that no one enjoys telling or hearing:

"When I met this person, and I could tell from the way they looked exactly what kind of person they were. And you know what, I was right!" Or...

"Well, let me tell you about the time I accomplished my five year plan with pinpoint accuracy!" Or...

"Here is how I make sure nothing unexpected ever happens in my life…"

Think about it: What is the most unsatisfying kind of movie to watch? What is the most boring book to read?

The kind where you know exactly what is going to happen from the very beginning. We are shaped by God to dislike stories that are predictable, punctual, planned, formulaic, and prosaic.

We crave drama, difference, distinctiveness. This is because we are created in the image of a God who does amazing, unpredictable things, like entering into His own creation and walking on water.

So why do we treat the Bible, and religion, and spirituality in a way that is predictable, punctual, planned, formulaic, and prosaic. Why do we insist on God fitting nicely into our pre-made boxes?

Now, do not get me wrong. I also believe that God made us as planners and thinkers and rational beings too. God created the world with order and structure and purpose.

Its just that in our culture, it is easy to loose the amazing, creative, unpredictable side of our life in Christ to the rote, routine, and reasonable side of life.

For example. Here is my cell phone. On this phone, I have my plans and appointments for the next two years. I also have all of my family's plans, all of our play dates, all of our sports games. I have contact information, phone numbers, and emails for all of the people in my professional and personal life.

I have five email addresses I can check. I have facebook. I have twitter. I have text messages. I have voice notes. I have a camera. I have the Bible in 30 translations. I have the Book of Common Prayer. I have internet, newspapers, files, documents, and much more.

This does not count all of the planning and preparation and paperwork on my computer, at my jobs, at home, in the mailbox, and scattered in my car. Multiply that for my wife and life gets very complex, very quickly.

And I say all of that because I know most of us in this place face similar levels of pre-planned complexity in our own lives. In fact, I know of people from Junior High age, up to well past retirement, who I would consider much busier than me.

And I think it can all take a toll on our life with God. We can have so many good things in our life- legitimately good gifts given to us by God- that we allow them to squeeze out what is best. We allow what is good to squeeze out what is God.

And not only that, but we allow it to squeeze out our sense of awe, mystery, and meaning in life. We allow it to squeeze out relationships. I know the times are few and far between, that I am able to just sit and BE with someone, and enter into their stories.

I know that if Jesus walked across the water right now, I would probably miss it because I would be too busy checking my email. I know that if God were to send flaming chariots from heaven right now, I would probably miss it because I was worried about getting to my next appointment on time.

Are you in the same place?

How long has it been since you took time to sit with God and enter into God's Story? How long has it been since you made space in your life for God to do something miraculous and awe inspiring?

How long has it been since you have watched for Jesus to walk into your life, across the troubled waves of anxiety and scheduling and responsibilities and requirements and paying the bills?

We all have to plan. We all have to structure our lives so they work. We are all busy. And much of that cannot be changed.

But we can carve out a space to sit with God at the breakfast table and listen to God's Story. We can come to Scripture without an agenda to make it say what we want, and instead imagine ourselves WITHIN the Story it tells.

We can make time to just BE with God for a while: To be a human BEING rather than just a human DOING.

And that is my prayer for us all. I pray we would make space in our lives for God to do something amazing and miraculous. I pray that in the midst of all our DOING we would remember we are human BEINGS made in God's image to live life with God. I pray that we would find Jesus telling stories at our breakfast table. Amen+

Trust Jesus to Touch You


A Sermon for Year B, Proper 9. Based on Mark 6:1-13
By Nathan L. Bostian

Now, I do not know about you, but if I walked into a hospital chapel, and heard that reading from Mark, I would be wondering something. I would be asking questions. I might even be scratching my head.

Because a hospital is a house of healing. It is supposed to be an environment where our diseases can be diagnosed, and treated, and hopefully cured.

But then I walk into this chapel- a place where we are pray for the healing of the patients, and wisdom for medical caregivers- I walk in and hear this text read:

"And Jesus could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief."

What am I supposed to do with that text?

If I am patient, what am I supposed to do with the fact that there were some who Jesus couldn't heal?

If I am the loved one of a patient, what am I supposed to do with the fact that it seems like Jesus couldn't heal people because of their "unbelief"?

And if I am in the medical profession, skilled in the healing arts, what am I supposed to do with the fact that the Greatest Healer of all time couldn't heal certain people?

This is a tough text. This is a text to wrestle with. This is a text that makes us turn to Jesus and ask him "God, what is UP with that?"

It would be easier to deal with another passage where Jesus heals the multitudes, no questions asked. It would be easier to talk about the 8th chapter of Romans, where Paul says that NOTHING in all creation, neither trials nor tribulations nor life nor death, is able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus.

It would be easier. But I don't think it would be the text God wants us to wrestle with today.

And in Church- especially in a Church where you read through all of the Bible, even the hard parts- sometimes we have to deal with readings that challenge us in the depths of our need.

Sometimes we have to deal with texts that make us wrestle, strain, struggle, sweat, and maybe even shed a tear or two.

But the promise of Jesus is that He is right there beside us, wrestling, straining, struggling, sweating, and even shedding tears.

So, let's be honest. Not everyone gets healed the way we want them to get healed. It doesn't matter if it is Jesus, or the latest multi-million dollar medical technology.

Not everyone gets healed.

And some of us may be struggling with that today. We might have a loved one who is not doing very well. We may be someone who has been looking to be healed for a long time, but it just doesn't seem to be coming. We may be someone who helps others heal, but no matter what treatments you try, there are still some patients you can't help.

And I don't know about you. But I know how I might feel. I might be hurting, physically and emotionally. I might feel scared. Or afraid. Or frustrated. I might even feel a little angry.

Maybe even more than a little bit.

And I might have questions that God does not seem to be answering.

And the reality is that in Jesus Christ, God is right there with you going through it all with you.

God did not stay up in heaven, unconcerned and untouched by all we go through. God did not stay on his Throne, afraid to get dirty with his children.

No, God did the unthinkable: In Jesus, God became one of us. God put skin on. God got his feet dirty.

In Jesus, God faced real human pain, real human frustration, real human fears, and real human death. Saint Paul's letter to the Philippians puts it this way:

"Jesus, who was in Reality God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name."

Jesus knew what it was like to not be healed, because he faced suffering and death with us. And Jesus knew what it was like to not be able to heal others, because some would not trust him.

But Jesus also knows that this is not the end. Sickness and pain and death do not have the last word. Lack of healing does not have the last Word. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we KNOW what the last Word is.

The Last Word is Life. The Last Word is Love. The Last Word is Hope.

And so, when we read passages like ours today, we ALWAYS have to keep the Last Word in mind. That's what Jesus did. And that's what kept Jesus going.

When confronted with the struggles of real people, it was Jesus' Word of Love that kept Him going. When confronted people's lack of faith, and rejection, and suspicion, it was Jesus' Word of Hope that kept Him going. When confronted with His own mortality, it was Jesus' Word of Life that kept Him going.

So, with that Last Word in mind, what do we learn about healing and hope in our Bible reading today?

The first thing we learn is that personal trust is what allows the healing work of Jesus into our lives. Our passage today says that when many were not healed, it was somehow connected with their "unbelief".

In fact this "unbelief" amazed Jesus. It flabbergasted him. Here he was, offering to heal and make whole, and all folks could do was make fun of him, for his background and upbringing.

It would be like if I stood here offering to give you a million dollars, and instead of taking it you just stood there and made fun of how bald I was, and how funny the collar of my shirt was.

Why would they react like that to Jesus?

There was probably a lot of reasons they were skeptical and offended by Jesus, but they all boil down to what the Bible calls "unbelief".

Now, when the Bible uses words like "unbelief" or "belief" or "faith", we often think of that as something you think about. We think about belief as something that means having right ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and so on.

And so we falsely think, if we don't have the right ideas, then God rejects us. We mistakenly think if we have the wrong beliefs, then Jesus won't heal us.

And if we can just memorize and know the right facts about Jesus, then we can get healed. We can get God to do what we want, when we want.

But that is NOT how it works. That is not what the Bible means by "belief" or "unbelief".

When the Bible talks about belief or faith, it is talking about trust. It is not talking about having right ideas. It is talking about if you desire, depend on, hope in, confide in Someone else. It is talking about if you cling to Jesus, and won't let go.

Let me put it this way: I have a 10 month old baby boy at home. When he sees mommy or me, he crawls over to us, and wants us to pick him up. He clings to us.

When he cries, and knows we will answer him. When he hurts or is hungry, he trusts us to care for him.

Does he have a lot of right ideas about us? No.

Other than knowing I am the large, smiling guy with the beard and the shiny head, he knows no facts about me. He doesn't even know my name.

But he believes in me. He trusts me. He has faith.

That was what was missing from the folks in Jesus' home town. It wasn't that they didn't have right ideas about him. They had all the facts: They knew who he was, who his family was, and probably the whole story of his childhood.

But they didn't trust him. They didn't have faith in him. They didn't run up to him, and embrace him, and cling to him. They would not let him touch them, and it is the touch of Jesus that heals.

Think about it: In almost all the stories where people are healed by Jesus, what do they do? They touch Jesus. They embrace Jesus. They cling to Jesus.

They didn't memorize all the right facts about Jesus, and pass his pop quiz before he would heal them. They touched him, and trusted him with their needs.

That is how trust is really shown: When we allow someone to touch us, and share in our pain. When we allow Jesus to touch us, and share in our pain.

And that brings us to the second thing about Jesus' healing that is hard for us to understand: When we DO come to him, and let him touch us, then why doesn't God heal us the way we expect?

Why doesn't God make healing planned and predictable and punctual? Why do we have to wait? Why do we have to worry?

The truth is, life is messy. And when Jesus is at work in our lives, he works within our messiness, in messy ways that we cannot predict.

Or to put it another way: God heals us in many ways. When we let Jesus touch us, he is ALWAYS at work healing us, but often not in the way we expect.

For example: At the very end of our reading today, Jesus sends his disciples on a mission. And that mission was to continue Jesus' mission, and do the exact same things that he did.

What were those things?

It says that the disciples proclaimed repentance, cast out evil powers, and healed the sick. This is exactly what Jesus did.

These may seem like three separate things, but they are all part of healing the entire person. They are three parts of the same healing activity that God does in our lives.

First of all, you have "repentance". To repent is to change one's heart, to get rid of harmful ways of living, and to embrace healthy ways of thinking.

When the disciples proclaim repentance, they are healing people's hearts and minds. That is emotional healing.

Second of all, there is casting out demons. This means to get rid of evil powers that have rooted themselves in someone's spirit. It means to free them from bondage to wickedness and sin. That is spiritual healing.

And third, there is healing the sick. That's physical healing.

Emotional healing. Spiritual healing. Physical healing. All are part of the same healing touch, when we embrace Jesus in faith.

We may want physical healing, and that does not happen. But Jesus is still at work in that experience, bringing us emotional healing or spiritual healing, if we will open ourselves to it.

If we will trust him to touch us at the core of our soul.

I know that is difficult. I know it is hard to want one thing, and have God give us another. And Jesus knows it too.

And that is why he walks with us through the hardest of times, and gives us the Hope of His Resurrection.

And not only that, but we also know that if we let Jesus touch us, He will be at work healing us. It might BE a spectacular physical healing.

But often, it will be in ways that are invisible to the outside world. Even in ways we are not aware of. But Jesus will be there. Healing us with the Hope of His resurrection.

So, I encourage you today: Let the Last Word of Jesus be the Word that gives you Hope. Remember that sickness and pain and death do not have the Last Word. Resurrection does. Hope does. Jesus does.

And I invite you to trust Jesus to touch you with his healing touch. Let him touch you with the touch that can cure disease, drive out evil, comfort the heart, and even raise the dead.

Embrace Jesus. Cling to Him. Trust in Him. Amen.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.