Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Advent: The God who comes in time

3 Advent. John 5:1-9, The Message

People told the story in that ancient time and place, that occasionally a messenger of God would come and stir up the waters of the pool. The first sick person to touch the water would be made well. The rest would remain, waiting for it to be stirred again. The sick, the infirm and the desperate gathered to await the movement of God.

The man Jesus encountered had specific expectations of the work of God. When Jesus asked a silly question, as he was wont to do, the man replied, “I cannot be healed because I am too weak to step into the path of God.” But Jesus demonstrated that God’s path takes him directly to the hurting and broken. No dipping in a pool. No magic words or special ceremonies. Jesus showed up and exploded his expectations and ours, telling him simply, “get up.”

It is Advent, a season to remember that God shows up at just the right time, in very unexpected ways. God came to us in the form of a gurgling, drooling baby. Can you imagine the incarnate deity spitting up on your shoulder? He comes to us in bread and wine. He comes to us in the Christian Community he called together.

We believe this. This is a God we can trust. So we open ourselves up to him in the silence, and await his presence. We will discover, just as the folks at the Pool of Bethesda did, that he is already with us. He will come and heal us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

He may guide us into the consummation, when we will be raised up to be with him. He may strengthen our bodies, sometimes very quickly, and sometimes through a long rehabilitation. He will give us the grace to forgive others, and teach us to entrust ourselves to the Body of Christ. These are the signs and wonders we await.

The one who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Advent Hope

You know I've been unfaithful
Lovers in lines
While you're turning over tables
With the rage of a jealous kind
I chose the gallows to the aisle
Thought that love would never find
Hanging ropes will never keep you
And your love of a jealous kind

- "Jealous Kind," from who we are instead, Jars of Clay
When we distance ourselves from the Lover of our souls, strangling ourselves in that familiar noose of self-recriminations and unanswerable questions, Jesus yet pursues us. We might be tempted to give up on ourselves -- and do just that -- a dozen times in a day, but he never does.

Who are the lovers to whom we turn for comfort? Success? The respect of others? Money? Sex? Power? It's all about money, sex and power, you know. Or is it?

One day he will appear. He will shine through the fog of our secrets like a blazing star, and we will really know for the first time just how deeply loved we are. We will see ourselves as he sees us, and we will drop our idols of guilt and the images of what we wish we were, and slip out of the noose. We will fall to our knees and raise our hands in gratitude.

Because we will understand. We will finally understand that his faithfulness and compassion more than compensate for all of our inadequacies, real or imagined. This will happen. And it could happen at any moment between now and the next breath.

This is the Advent Hope.

Christ have mercy.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Advent: Welcoming the Inbreaking of the Kingdom

I think I did a fair enough job delivering Wednesday's homily. This whole sermon thing is a little daunting, and I've been thinking about a point Dr. Power made the other day about how priests are given the gift and responsibility of speaking God's hope and promise into the lives of people who, like me and everybody else in the world, face the challenges of stress, overwork, individualism, materialism, depression, addiction, all kinds of life dominating brokenness, on and on into the night.

It is by no means useful for me to try to think up pretty and academically impressive things to say. But that's what I like best! Rats.

This weekend will be the second young adult bible "exploration" or whatever. We need a decent name for this: I don't want to be trendy, but as one of our kind parishioners pointed out the other day, "Bible Study" carries connotations of lectures and bottled answers. He's right, especially in the Bible Belt culture. "Bible Exploration." Does anybody have an opinion on that? Soon I'll be putting together content for a young adult ministry webpage on the church's site. This will be a challenge; I know what I want to convey, but I'm not sure of the best way to do so.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is not that we can be "saved" from hell or to heaven by giving intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions. That's what is usually meant by the idea of "accepting Jesus" as one's Lord and Savior. Believing in Jesus is not the same as believing something about Jesus, which is what lots of folks consider conversion to be. Well, they're just plain wrong.

Essentially, the Gospel calls us to an alternative lifestyle of repentance: continual turning from materialism to generosity, from individualism to community, and from cynicism to gratitude and hope. We turn from ourselves and our own way of doing things (what Paul calls "the flesh" or "sinful nature") and turn to God and a new way of life (what he calls the life of the Spirit). When men and women take seriously the proclamation that God is drawing all the outsiders near and that the reign of God is breaking into the world through the changing lives of Jesus' disciples, that news will radically alter their attitudes and ways of living and relating to others. People who respond to that news will form missional communities and through their lives in the world translate into different cultures God's message of repentance and hope. Those communities will take shape in different ways appropriate to their own times and places, and consist of a group of people who are serious about changing their attitudes and way of living to bring it in line with the inbreaking Kingdom of God.

It is Advent, after all.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Who's Dirty?

The Wednesday of the Second Week in Advent. Matthew 15:1-20

This conflict is not only about ceremonial cleanliness, but about two visions of being Israel: that of Jesus, and that of the Pharisees. The question of clean and unclean was one of who was fit to stand in the presence of God with God’s people. There are insiders and there are outsiders; us and them. This was particularly important since these Jewish folk lived in a Palestine absolutely infested with Gentiles. Walking down the street could make an otherwise perfectly religious, Godly Jew unclean without even realizing it. This is why elaborate hand-washing exercises developed, not for hygienic, but religious reasons. In skipping over them, Jesus and His disciples once again disregarded the painful lesson Israel learned through the Exile: the Jews could only be God’s people and carry his favor insofar as they maintained separation from the other people on the earth.

Jesus insisted on a very different understanding. Israel would not be different from the other nations because of ceremony and what they would or wouldn’t eat or touch, but by the way they responded to God. They would live pure, holy, loving lives, and take care of the people around them. They would in this way live under the reign of God, even though God’s presence seemed distant.

The rules were meant to protect and empower the peoples’ relationship with God, but instead they kept them from it. The temple system in Jesus’ day was burdensome to the poor, and those who wanted to turn to God were hindered by the sacrificial requirements. This is why John the Baptizer and his baptism of repentance was so popular, and why Jesus smashed the tables of the sellers in the temple—they were an equivalent of our loan sharks. Jesus uses an odd custom as an example of this: some people use those rules to weasel out of what God considers their clear responsibility to love.

For the Pharisees, being faithful to God had everything to do with how things looked: that one did all the right things and appeared religious and pure. This is why they so often criticized Jesus as a "drunk": he spent time with drunks, prostitutes and tax collectors. What does this mean to us? It means that we cannot use rules about what’s religious or irreligious to weasel out of our clear responsibility to love.

Whenever we choose to step away from someone because we don’t understand them, or their lifestyles are extravagantly sinful, or we’re concerned that others will think we’re like them or approve of their behavior and worldviews, we let our hearts wander from God. We can only speak the prophetic word if first we choose to love. Creative love is in itself a prophetic act.

Who are the people in our lives we avoid? Who irritates us? Those are the folks for whom we must ask God to give us a vision. Understanding the inconsistencies and weakness of our own love, we ask for a glimpse of His deep tenderness toward our enemies. Armed with this, we are called to speak good things, to voice God’s blessing into their lives. Through such an empowerment of the Holy Spirit, those good things will come to pass. We needn’t worry, then, about who is clean or not, because we will ourselves will be agents of God’s cleansing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

On Prayer

A Word from ++A.M. Ramsey

The Godward movement has many aspects. It includes the use of mind and imagination which we call meditation, it includes the counting of God's mercies which we call praise and thanksgiving, and self-abasement which we call confession. But try to think of it more simply: it means putting yourself near God, with God, in a time of quietness every day. You put yourself with him just as you are, in the feebleness of your concentration, in your lack of warmth and desire, not trying to manufacture pious thoughts or phrases. You put yourself with God, empty perhaps, but hungry and thirsty for him; and if in sincerity you cannot say that you want God you can perhaps tell him that you want to want him; and if you cannot say even that perhaps you can say that you want to want to want him! Thus you can be very near him in your naked sincerity; and he will do the rest, drawing out from you longings deeper than you knew were there and pouring into you a trust and a love like that of the psalmist-- whose words may soon come to your lips. Forgive me for putting this so clumsily. I am trying to say that you find you are "with God" not by achieving certain devotional exercises in his presence but by daring to be your own self as you reach towards him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Everything You Know is Incorrect

For the Wednesday Healing Eucharist, the 28th Sunday after Pentecost.

2 Corinthians 1:3-11
John 6:47-51

When great pain comes, we feel things about God that our heads know to be wrong. Despite the counsel of Holy Scripture and the fact of the Incarnation telling us that God really deeply loves us, in times of emotional or physical agony we often conclude that God is somewhere up above and far away, implicitly approving the pain of his people. We don’t usually announce clearly, “God is punishing me,” but we might hear or say something like, “I’m sure God let this happen for a reason,” or “Maybe God is trying to get your attention.” Have we heard this before?

The idea that God might crush our bodies or twist our emotions to wring faithfulness out of us stands in stark contradistinction to the theology of suffering presented to us by the Christ of Calvary, who died alone and afraid, his asphyxiating body torn by whips and covered with the spit of Roman soldiers.

The Crucified God turns our notions of suffering upside down by suffering with us. Because the only truly morally upright human ever to live suffered and died, alone and betrayed by his people, we know that those who suffer and die alone and betrayed do not do so by the will of God. Parents who love do indeed chasten and correct their children, but they do not bring about their destruction.

Jesus the God-Man shows us how God suffers with us and suffers for us. He also shows us how to offer ourselves up to God in the midst of our pain. In Christ, God has reached out to us in our fallenness and broken humanity, and bids us offer our fear and pain to Him as gifts in themselves. When we confess to God that we are angry, that we are hurting, and most important of all, that we are deeply afraid, we are offering back to the Father of Compassion a wonderful gift: reckless, daring trust. Confession to God and other believers of our own destitution demonstrates to Him that we know He and the Community He is continually creating and redeeming will not reject us and cast us into outer darkness.

In so doing, we join with the rhythms of Christ’s redemptive suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his execution, Jesus poured out his fear, pain and confusion to God. To do that very thing is to offer radical trust to God as our gift back to the Giver. It is in this way that the presence of Christ moves into our own suffering, and remakes us as sufferers into the likeness of Jesus Himself.

“Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives,” says Paul, “so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” When we as God’s new community choose to bear with one another in our fear and desolation, we offer hospitality to Christ as well. It is into that lifestyle that Jesus pours his resurrection life. When this happens, we don’t see his resurrection any longer as a promise of life in the future, after death, but a reversal of the death in our lives now.

Therefore when we also feel in our own hearts the sentence of death and despair even of life, let us rely not on ourselves, but on God who, raises the dead.

As we offer ourselves up to God in the Eucharist, let us be cognizant that it is not just our strength we offer up to him, but our fear and weakness as well. It is into that desolation that he pours out his Spirit when we partake of the bread and wine. This is a God we can trust with our broken hearts. His wholeness will make us whole.


Technorati Tags: , ,

Your Kingdom Come

28 Pentecost. Tuesday, November 18, 2003. Matthew 17:14-21

This passage makes me nervous; two possible hermeneutical catastrophes come immediately to mind. If we believed deeply in the authority we have as baptized people to bring about the rule of God’s Kingdom, we might do very well to go about laying hands on the demoniacs in our lives and healing the broken. On the one hand, this could lead to a great crisis of faith were nothing spectacular to happen. On the other, if the lame started walking, the blind regained their sight and demoniacs were restored to their right minds, we’d have an even bigger disaster on our hands. To make matters worse, we have yet another confusing suggestion from Jesus, criticizing the disciples for having a faith too small, but insisting that the smallest bit of faith is indeed sufficient to accomplish the largest tasks.

When the disciples brought this epileptic/demoniac to Jesus, he had just come down the mountain after the event we call the Transfiguration – Jesus appeared to Peter, James and John, bathed in bright light and flanked by Moses and Elijah. This served as supernatural authentication of Jesus’ Messiahship. This was not an office of merely “religious” significance, either: anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures knew that God’s anointed one would be sent to kick Roman backside and restore the Kingdom to Israel under the direct rule of God. Behold, the Messiah illumined by God’s power and glory. The mighty revolutionary and savior of his people then promptly trotted down the hill into the depths of human misery, to bring to bear the strong and loving rule of Yahweh into the lives of the last, least, and left out, who in this case was a seizing peasant boy.

The presence of a demon behind the boy’s ailment reminds us that the struggle was also a spiritual one: in this confrontation, the Messiah establishes God’s kingdom against Beelzebub, dramatically dethroning in that time and place the forces of darkness and death that gripped someone Yahweh loved very much. It is in light of that reality that Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry out the revolution: preach, heal, cast out demons. They couldn’t cast out this one, however. Jesus counted them with the unbelieving, perverse generation around them, because their faith was too small. He then tells them, even though their faith was small, the smallest faith would be sufficient to accomplish the biggest of tasks.

Oh, okay. Huh? Jesus is not the most clear and sensible of rabbis, is he? He leaves us with another riddle that requires us to think hard and pray fervently if we are to obey in any meaningful way.

Maybe the kind of faith possessed by the disciples was the real issue. Maybe they thought they could heal people for God because he had given them special powers for that purpose. Perhaps they hoped that they could accomplish these things through special formulas or magic words. Sound familiar? I would suggest that any degree of belief in one’s ability to accomplish God’s purposes in this way would always be a faith far too small for the God of Jesus Christ.

Jesus instead calls us to faith in a God so big, that even believing in His God just a little bit through the darkness of our own lives will accomplish the impossible. The nature of that God revealed through Jesus dares us to believe that Jesus is bringing about God’s kingdom in power, in ways we never would have expected. He calls all of his disciples to believe that it is God’s will and desire to establish a world that the meek will inherit, where the hungry will be fed, and the poor will become the richest of all; the lame would dance, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead be raised.

He has not called us to trust our own abilities, but to trust Him, His will and His power. Even now He continues to break into our dark and fallen world to heal us and set us free – every last one of us. He will not do this work because we lay hands on folks. He will heal because he loves and it is his determined desire to impart wholeness to those he loves. He chooses to do so through the touch of the Body of Christ. May we prove ourselves faithful to that mission, and willing to believe in it despite our deeply entrenched darkness and fear.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Happy Reformation Day

In honor of Martin Luther and the Reformation the Holy Spirit brought about through his daring, let's have a few words from him:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for He is victorious over sin, death, and the world.
This sounds quite odd at first blush, but as I've thought about it, it's really a neat idea. God doesn't love us because we've cleaned up for him, or we're every quite composed and religious enough to be holy and loveable -- he just loves us. Gratuitously, entirely apart from anything we do or don't do. We are free to acknowledge that we are sinners, completely undeserving of His love, but deeply privilaged recipients of it just the same. "From His fullness we have recieved grace upon grace."

Luther also had quite the sense of humor. When one of his ministers came to him complaining that one of the regional religious leaders approved of practices that were far too "Romish," he responsed thus:

Why don't you, for heaven's sake, march around wearing a sliver or gold cross, as well as a skull cap and a chasuble made of velvet, silk or cotton? If your superior, the Elector, thinks that one cap or one chasuble is not enough, then put on two or three, like Aaron, the high priest, who wore three coats, one on top of the other, and they all looked wonderful...

If your Electoral Excellency thinks one procession is not enough, marching around with singing and with bells, then do it seven times, just as Joshua did in Jericho with the Children of Israel. They shouted and blew their trunpets. Perhaps your Electoral Excellency might even jump around and dance in front of all the people with harps, drums, cymbels, and bells, just as David did before the Ark of the Covenant on it's way to Jerusalem. I completely approve of such things, as long as they ar not abused or steal the thunder from the gospel; and as long as they are not viewed as necessary for salvation, or binding on consciences.
Uh, sure, whatever...

Wednesday, July 23, 2003


Many of my friends have a real dislike for flashy, media driven Pentecostalism. You know what I'm talking about: Hagee, Parsley, and others whose messages are manuals of manipulation – simplistic primers in heresy that encourage men and women to approach God as if he were some kind of cosmic bookkeeper who deals in credits and debits and in exchange for our showy spiritual favors will count out blessings in return –twice, and exact to the penny.

These preachers bother me. They hold their flock in dark bondage, and lead some of us outside their circles to reject out of hand any detailed theology of the Spirit’s work in their lives. One of my brothers made a comment to this effect: I just cannot believe that God reaches down and gives us flashy superpowers so that we might impress one another and be entirely irrelevant to the world in which we live. Alright, so that’s not a direct quote, but that’s the idea, and the “superpowers” phrasing has stuck with me for a good week or so.

My friend is absolutely right. But the Holy Spirit really does come and give us superpowers. These powers do not equip us in any way we would have wanted or imagined on our own. It is the way of our dark and fallen world to see power in terms of control, deference, and authority. This is wrong, but a seducing concept because it seems to work so well. We tell ourselves that if only we could be respected, influential, affluent, and loved by everyone, then we would be happy and at peace. This is not true, of course. It would be in that inability to be affected by the dark aspects of humanity that we would be most untouchable and miserable.

Our God has shown us the way of real power in the self-giving love of Christ. His last word regarding our sins is forgiveness. Our master Jesus has faced all of our darkness, weakness, mixed motives and rebellion, and absorbed every last bit of it. There is no manifestation of our fallen condition that has not demonstrated sympathy for by the ministrations of his cross. As his body, the Church continues these ministrations by absorbing sins and giving away his forgiveness: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).

It seems to me that I spend far too much energy in attempts to gloss over my own failures and shortcomings only to find that the image I’ve created is entirely meaningless. If the self I present for the acceptance of other people is not really me – if it is rather an unrealistic depiction of myself as I want others to see me – I cannot gain any real affirmation. I might be able to make people love the image, but they would not be loving me – not from lack of willingness, but because the real me would remain hidden. So many of us create images hoping to be accepted, but wonder why we feel empty when the plan works.

If we are really to be known and loved by others as we truly are, we cannot gloss over the ugly parts of our fallen humanity. This is one of many reasons that members of the Christian community confess their sins to one another: when baptized people exercise their priesthood by speaking prophetic words of correction and tender words of redemption to one another, we shine the light of God’s love and acceptance into the dark places of our lives. In forgiving one another the sins we commit against each other and the community at large, we absorb the brokenness of our sinful humanity in the name of Christ. This is not an easy or glamorous task. It rarely feels warm and fuzzy. But it is a necessary part of redemption, for reconciliation is God’s fervent desire for his people.

In his Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote, “In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness is made beautiful because of the love that surrounds it.” God’s truth is spoken into our lives through the Word, the Spirit, and the Church that he might reveal our brokenness and sin. He does this for our redemption: that we might be healed. This healing is brought about also by the Word, the Spirit, and the Church. Being active in this for one another is a mark of authentic discipleship, a sign of redemption, and a cost of true fraternity.

The Holy Spirit has indeed given us superpowers. They do not work most powerfully by preventing us from sinning, quieting all the rebellion in our hearts, or perfecting our moral lives. This is part of sanctification, but in my mind not the most needful or difficult part. As we are deeply prideful, fallen people, the most exquisite example of supernatural, transformative grace occurs when having sinned, we confess and repent. When we rebel, we turn again, and ask forgiveness. When we fall, we ask God’s mercy, and that of his community. When we can trust in God’s love for us so powerfully that the ugliness we see in ourselves is made an offering rather than being hastily hidden, then we will know that the Holy Spirit has come to us.

Holy Spirit, come in power. May the same power by which God raised up our brother Jesus animate us to walk in new and abundant life, just as he does. Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Maundy Thursday: I am...

We are Judas, failing to understand, and betraying him by supposing that we ourselves can work out our own redemption.

We are Peter, swearing allegiance yet trying to prevent the very cleansing that makes us God's own. We skulk around in the torchlight and watch the rulers of this age condemn the One with whom we should have remained, at all costs

We are the Eleven, promising never to leave or forsake the only One who can and will keep that promise, and quickly diving into the shadows of the night when the time comes.

But we are also Mary, trusting in the promise of our Lord even when all hope has dissipated and left us in the dark.

We are Peter, who is forgiven and restored and given an apostleship that we will fulfill, not on the basis of prior repentance, ability and faithfulness, but rather on that of Jesus' deep and abiding love for us, and the power our Lord has to do anything through and in our lives.

Technorati Tags:

God On My Side

Or, Why Everyone Else Isn't Necessarily Going to Hell

God is on my side. I know, you see, because I prayed about it. I knew you’d disagree with me, too. The Bible says that anyone who tries to live righteously in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. So naturally if you give me a difficult time of things or disagree, you are a child of the devil. Or not “within God’s will.” Indeed, the Bible told me his will, and what more does a real Christian need? There are good or bad, worthy or unworthy people, and right or wrong beliefs. God loves the first and tolerates or even despises the second. I hear from people that there two sides: evil Afghanistan or guiltless America; evil Palestinians or divinely chosen Israel. I heard at church that Christians killed at the WTC hadn’t “heard from God” that morning. It’s enough to make me think twice about skipping morning prayers.

And yet...

Jesus characterized God as an equal opportunity lover: “He causes his rain to fall upon the righteous and unrighteous alike.” If this is true, the moral reasoning we credit to God is not his at all. It would seem he doesn’t categorize men and women according to simple ideas of good and bad as I do. Does he in some ways differentiate between those who obey and those who rebel? Yes. Do those differences determine his love for those men and women, or the whole of sinful humanity? No.

Christian theology (see Romans and John’s Gospel) holds that God loves all the people in the world so much that he expressed it in the death of Jesus Christ, in which he assumed the sinfulness of the entire world. Sinners are reconciled through Christ, and men and women can be called righteous (morally perfect) by virtue of his righteousness. This is what I’ve heard. But if grace is indeed God’s unmerited favor, and he insists upon justifying the unjust, then all disgraced men and women—oppressed and oppressors alike—are recipients of his unconditional love. If Christ crucified bore man’s burden as the godforsaken sinner and God raised him up, then each of the godforsaken has been brought near to God by this event.

If this is true, perhaps I’ve misunderstood some things and continue to do so. Perhaps the Risen Lord welcomes to himself the abused as well as their abusers: war hawks, pacifists, conservatives, liberals, fundamentalists, addicts, welfare moms, murderers, the wise, homosexuals, martyrs, thieves and everyone I (and society) seek to cleanly categorize as good or bad, worthy or unworthy of love and compassion. Perhaps the Master welcomes those we never would.

That admission does not come easily; people like to justify themselves by comparing their moral strengths and weaknesses to those of others. But if the Gospel is really good news, God does not honor such attitudes. He disagrees with them. Vehemently. Judge and you condemn yourself, says Paul. Judge and you will be judged by God, says Jesus. It would seem that my moral sensibilities often oppose God’s call to indiscriminate love. His judgments and mine are diametrically opposed.

Perhaps, then, the God who is for me is not necessarily on my side. If God loves indiscriminately, he certainly does not discriminate against men and women with respect to my shortsighted categories. Nor does he respect those of anyone else. Perhaps that’s why the Christ of God was so careful to say that a disciple’s deepest love should be reserved for his or her enemies. Perhaps instead of adopting our morality, God himself has a greater morality to which he calls us instead.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Of Street Preachers and Bad Religion

It must be springtime again, because a trio of sex-crazed religious fundamentalists has descended upon our campus again hurling hateful invective at us (three, including the former Georgetown student working the crowd). It’s generally the people who cannot cope with the challenges of their own sexuality who feel the need to denounce others for the wanton acts of carnality they may or may not be committing.

The older preacher has been showing up for the past several years sprouting fresh slurs against Greeks, fornicators, homosexuals, drunkards, pagans, liberals, and everyone in between for engaging in all manner of evils. These diatribes always seem to be a novel attraction to a number of students, but I must insist that the "gospel" these folks vomit out is not new, and it is not good news. Their sermons form an ugly caricature of Christianity, presenting their God as nothing but a small-minded accountant, doling out material blessings in exchange for moral behavior, and smiting his rebellious creations with sickness and destruction if they misstep.

St. Paul would beg to differ: he declares that while we were all separated from God and spiritually dead because of our mixed motives, sinful behavior, selfish living, and outright rebellion, Christ died for us. He offered himself for our redemption and in his resurrection, he made it possible that God might raise us from spiritual death now and physical death at the last day. The Christian Church is the Body of the Risen Christ—what Paul called the mystery of Christ in us. Christians are ordained as priests in God's kingdom by virtue of their baptism and equipped with the power of the Spirit to absorb the sins of men and women around them, forgiving and loving people deeply and authentically: God “has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). This is the ministry of Jesus Christ in our midst.

The street preachers are not qualified to speak to us, because they do not love us. If they cared about our own experiences and perspectives and wished to commune with us by listening to us, then they might speak. But they will not, and so cannot. They flatter themselves in supposing that they can call us to repentance.

The Spirit, however, always calls us to convert to the love of Jesus Christ, the true religion of the Church. Convert with me. Let us bear an authentic witness to God’s love, standing against legalism, bigotry, and a culture of ungrace. We must dare to love creatively those folks who are not like us, who do not agree with us, and who fit nowhere into our neat social circles. If we would be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives we must dedicate ourselves to loving recklessly those we feel most justified in despising.

So I will repent, and deny a religion that seeks to bind folks up and choke them with the Word, instead of setting them free by it. I will say no to a religion that places the written rule above forgiveness and mercy. I will repent of the attitudes I hold toward people who irritate me. I will stop devaluing people. I will stop judging people according to my own standards. I will walk in grace and compassion. I will be a Christian.

Will you repent with me?

If the preacher men return, bear the witness of Jesus Christ the Compassionate One: refuse to curse, refuse to argue; these men aren’t listening to rebuttals, but wish only to anger us. Turn your back on quick judgments, and cold, calculating religion, and refuse to encourage their message. Walk away.

Christ have mercy.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Against the Powers

I have particular affinity for the Baptismal Covenant as it appears in the Book of Common Prayer because of the emphasis that the presence of vows places on the newly baptized to live the Christ-life, not only at the moment the sacrament is received but every day of the convert’s life.

For my part, the most difficult vow is that to “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” This seems to be in a different league from the “sinful desires that draw [me] from the love of God,” because of the internal and personal nature of the latter. The evil powers of this world are indeed everywhere, but they must be sought out to be recognized and resisted: they take the forms of governmental systems, economic policies, social injustices, and particularly the apathy with which human beings view the plight of others.

I find the greatest difficulty when I am called upon to suffer minor, meaningless indignities at the hands of others: being ignored, written off, disrespected, and otherwise devalued by folks whose only motivation is to make themselves feel better by lambasting someone they don’t suppose will answer them back. I have not often chosen to let such attacks die quietly, but have taken great joy in calling these folks to the carpet, especially while working service jobs. I discover upon further reflection, however, that such exchanges do have significance, in that they are opportunities for me to renounce evil powers or not. It would be Christ-like in such situations to grant grace to those with downcast hearts and darkened minds, and to stand up to those who would abuse others while respecting the human dignity of everyone involved.

The way to effectively rob the evil powers and “spiritual forces of wickedness” of their might to is to learn and live the truth that the only real power in a fallen creation is the force of suffering love. Our sufferings acquire meaning and become Christ-like only when we chose to make them for others. Bearing the insults and indignities visited upon us by other men and women can be a redemptive exercise when in them we choose to absorb the sinfulness of the people around us, and love them anyway. When we make this choice we make a stand over against the “evil powers” (and even against their own desires) to believe in the image of God that remains in fallen humans even behind all the sin and bloodguilt we bring upon ourselves.

Has anybody else had one of those "service" jobs where y'all were trying to learn how to cope with other people's garbage? It's easy for me to say these things now that I'm gainfully unemployed, but if I were to go back to the gas station, or the deli, or the fast food restaurant, I would have more trouble...