Tuesday, June 24, 2014

We see God in and through each other

A few weeks ago my wife and I had the good fortune to celebrate Father’s Day with my son and his family.  The day was made more special because it coincided with 2 recent birthdays. It was a great day with lots of fun and laughs. Of course in time the youngsters, having spent the requisite amount of time with the adults, grew restless and were eager to pursue their own interests. I especially enjoyed listening to the various pleas and individualized approaches each of the children used in asking permission for this or that. I recognized many of these scenes from the past; they had been acted out when I was a parent and when I was a child myself.  

I believe that I became a better parent when I became a grandfather. As a grandparent I am more a spectator than an active participant and now have the luxury of being able to sit back and watch and listen to how these scenes all play out. Sure, I know some of the challenges my son and daughter-in-law face in rearing children are the same as the ones we and our parents faced, but the world and our culture are more complex today and the pressures on parents to manage these challenges are greater than the ones we faced. As a “spectator” I am in awe as to how our son and daughter-in-law work through the endless requests and issues that pop up on a daily, if not hourly basis, and I ask myself, “when did he learn to do all that; where did he pick up all the skills to handle this? I don’t think I would have done it as well.” I have learned so much about parenting in watching them and while it makes me feel good to think that there’s probably some imprinting going on, they are far ahead of where I was then.

Life, wrote Kierkegaard, can only be understood backwards.  But it must be lived forwards.  

Along those lines few years ago I saw an interview with actor Michael Douglas on a late night talk show. He spoke of his relationship with his father, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas; I’ll paraphrase the story he told.

Dad called me the other night. He said, "Michael, I was watching myself in an old movie earlier tonight and I didn't remember making it."

"Well, Dad, you made over 70 movies and you are 94. Don't be so rough on yourself."

"No, Michael, you didn't let me finish. I realized halfway through that I was watching one of your movies."

Wouldn't it be wonderful if certain aspects of our lives and ways of relating to others were all but indistinguishable from Jesus? If they reminded others of Jesus, just a little bit? We seek, every day, in every place, to be emissaries of Jesus: representatives of Jesus who welcome others as if they were Jesus and who relate to others in the spirit of Jesus?

Our task (Matthew 10:40-42) is to consciously attend to the Christ in everyone. Christ in the stranger. Christ in the enemy. Christ in the friend. Christ in the spouse. Christ in our sibling. Christ in the politician who makes our blood boil. Christ in the one who believes differently than I do.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Our Beloved Community

Matthew's community was experiencing serious persecution. It would be decades before Christians were even called Christians and would be persecuted solely "for the name." Nevertheless, Matthew's followers were getting into trouble for the same reasons that Jesus and Paul did.
Sarah Dylan Breuer, an Episcopal priest from Cambridge MA, conducts a workshop called "Speaking the Truth in Love: Practical Skills for Reconcilers." She believes that there are essential skills that are foundational and vital to the process of reconciliation. Matthew’s (Matthew10: 24-39) Gospel selected for this Sunday calls to mind those skills.

The first skill requires that we keep an open mind, listen and be as fully “present” to the process of sincerely trying to understand one another. The second skill is to be in touch as much as possible with God's love. We want to really know and experience God’s extravagant and unconditional love.

When Jesus teaches that we "Call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the one in heaven,” he is referring to the earthly paternal powers that we may allow to enslave and have dominion over us. Matthew’s community deferred to God’s infinite love and wisdom and not to the ruling powers of the time. They were taught and believed that God gave every human being the ability to make their own decisions. Each had gifts to offer the community and they didn't need to ask anyone's permission to do so. As such, they built pockets of communities within their overarching Christian community, based on Christ’s teaching, into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many and therefore threatened to undermine the order of the Empire. 

And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators to be flogged, or worse. We can only imagine that being betrayed by those so close to us would wound as deeply as any physical punishment. 

The one thing that Matthew wants his followers to remember isn't something they're supposed to say or some particularly compelling case that they should make to their accusers or the authorities. It, more than anything else, is that they need to embrace how very much God loves them. This is good advice for anyone living in Christ's reconciling ministry.  

Sooner or later, if you're a part of that ministry, you'll find yourself making contact with very deep wounds, and wounded people. And all wounded creatures are liable to respond to any overture out of pain, confusion, and anger. A person who comes back at them with more of the same is only going to speed up the spiral of violence, with disastrous results. What we want to do in a situation like that is to be present and loving; that's the only way to disrupt that spiral of violence. That's very hard to do, though, when someone is right in front of you either threatening violence or saying something that would normally provoke a "fight or flight" response…something that's sure to happen eventually if you're trying to be an agent of healing.  

In a situation like that, we're understandably tempted to withdraw -- to "check out" mentally if not remove ourselves physically…or to strike back, or both. I think part of what makes those temptations particularly strong is that contact with another person's deep wounds often reminds us of our own wounds and vulnerabilities that we've tried to forget. That's why reconcilers must remind themselves moment to moment to stay grounded in God's love. If we remember how much and how unconditionally God loves and values us, we won't be thrown off-center by anyone's attempts to make us feel as worthless. Rely on the power of God's love to heal, and we won't have to flee from things that remind us of our own vulnerabilities and wounds. Recall what God's love looks like in the flesh…in the person of Jesus, and we will know how to respond. Be in touch with that love at the very core of our being, and we will be able to respond with authenticity and with love no matter what we face. 

Don't worry about what to say. There's a reason Martin Luther King called the result of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." It is the community of those who know, who proclaim, and who embody the Good News that love is the fundamental, powerful, and inevitable Word through which the universe was made and lives, and for which it is destined. We have seen the Word made flesh in Jesus, and we see it embodied in and among us. That can't be stopped by violence. Bringing violence to bear against God's love only creates more opportunities for God's love to disrupt the spiral of violence and build a beloved community.
Thanks be to God!

Adapted from SarahLaughed.net, by Sarah Dylan Breuer, an Episcopal priest who was elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church by General Convention in 2009.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Church is a Verb

Let’s face it when many of us hear the "Great Commission" in (Matthew 28:16-20), we may not necessarily feel inspired or encouraged but instead just a little guilty. Why? Because day in and day out we somehow do not perceive ourselves as being called and sent to bear witness to our faith and, even more, do not feel equipped to do so. So when we hear Jesus' very clear instructions we are reminded of one more thing we should, but regularly do not, do – which as we know, is a sure recipe for guilt.

As adults, much of our identity is related to our areas of competence -- at work, at home, in volunteer activities or hobbies. When we find ourselves in situations where we do not feel competent, our anxiety shoots through the roof. (This, psychologists tell us, is why adults have a hard time learning a new language or musical instrument -- it's not that our brains are too old or hardwired to learn something new; it's that we don’t like feeling incompetent and so quit before making much progress.)

Now, think about how often we have been invited to make connections between our faith and our daily lives; to share that faith with others, or invite others to come to church. Perhaps it’s because we’ve rarely been asked, let alone shown how to do these kinds of things even in the relatively safe confines of church let alone in more threatening situations outside of church. It all means that we don't feel competent to fulfill anything remotely resembling Jesus' Commission.

These few short verses in today’s Gospel summarize our “Great Commission” and are such an important text in the context of Matthew's gospel that there is a danger that its use on Trinity Sunday will lead to too much focus on its links with the Trinity and dilute those pivotal themes around which are faith is centered: It clearly proclaims the supreme authority of Jesus, as being one with the Father and having no earthly equal; it reminds us that the purpose of the Church is to develop followers, baptize, teach, obey and remember that God through the life of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, is with us until the end of time.

Yet let's admit it, most of us feel a little guilty when we hear Jesus' instructions. More than that, most of us don't have the foggiest idea of what it would look like in everyday life to implement his instructions. So after acknowledging where we are, how can we go about gaining a sense of competence in these matters and thereby grow in our confidence to share our faith?

Perhaps it starts with moving to a more participatory style of Christian formation in which we reach out to one another, inviting our hearers to do more than just hear but to respond to the word proclaimed in our services and revealed in our daily lives. And maybe, over time we will be inspired to share these revelations and proclaim the Word with our own “gift of tongues,” and in and by our actions. How good are we at doing what we are told? How good are we at not allowing arrogance, negative patterns from the past, and doubts to hold us back from making disciples for Jesus Christ? We can't afford to wait until we are perfect and conditions are optimal to become and make disciples. Some people who call themselves Christians can't bring themselves to share their faith. They remain forever trapped on the mountain depicted in the scene from Matthew, mired in their doubts and excuses.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Peace and Forgiveness and The Holy Spirit

When Jesus appears to his apostles (John 20:13-23) he says "Peace be with you." With these words, I think we understand something deeper than calming their fears and anxieties. With Jesus' sudden appearance, there is apparently some further hesitation and fear that is somewhat calmed by Jesus showing them his wounds, his marks of identity as their Crucified Lord. At that point, they "rejoice," but then why does Jesus insist on saying again, "Peace be with you"? Isn't it because what they really need the most at that moment is forgiveness? Isn't the kind of peace they need the one set in motion by forgiveness?

The ensuing Pentecostal commissioning would seem to support this. As the Father has sent Jesus with the presence of forgiveness, so now Jesus sends them, with the power of the Holy Spirit: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

What is retaining sins about? Is this an ironic portion of the commissioning that Jesus throws in to make clear their mission is to not be as the unforgiving servant was in the parable of Matthew 18? How could they retain the sins of any after experiencing themselves this utterly gracious presence of Jesus among them as forgiveness? Had they done anything to deserve Jesus' forgiving presence with them at that moment? Had Jesus himself shown any hint of retaining their sin? If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

I think we could agree that Jesus followers were, to use the vernacular, a “bad hire.” Jesus needed to call his disciples a second time. The first call didn't stick. They all abandoned him at his time of need. Why would he do that? Is this the case of a bad hire? Or is their failure, along with Jesus' forgiveness of it, precisely their main qualification for being hired as apostles?

Most of us would have fired them – “You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I'm risen I'm going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.” That's what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it's incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus' first messengers. Is Jesus crazy?

No, of course not. He's the Son of God, and so he definitely does things differently from what we would do. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.

You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are [Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong], with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven. (Adapted from Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” Audio Tape Series #12)