Reimagining our Roles

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Fifty five years ago this week, one of the great careers in major league baseball came to a memorable and poetic conclusion. On a damp and chilly day in Boston, the Red Sox were playing their final home game of the season. There would no October baseball in Boston that year; the Red Sox were the worst they had been in 27 seasons. Nevertheless, the Fenway crowd was electric as Boston’s 42 year old left fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. In his long career with the Red Sox, Ted Williams had been one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball. He was unquestionably a transcendent talent: he still holds the record for highest single season batting average. Yet, there was always a simmering resentment among the Fenway faithful when it came to their impressive left fielder. Williams never led his perennially frustrated team to a World Series victory. He was injury prone and plagued by a host of personal and family issues. He craved solitude and, as a result, expressed no interest in cultivating a relationship with press or the fans. But perhaps most galling to fans and baseball purists was his failure to honor the timeless baseball convention of tipping one’s cap to acknowledge the accolades of the crowd.

But none of that seemed to matter on that autumn day in 1960. When Ted emerged from the on deck circle for his final plate appearance at Fenway, the crowd stood and applauded in unison. This was not the primal, indistinct roar of a typical stadium crowd; it was, in the words of John Updike, a “somber and considered tumult.” Indeed, the ovation seemed to represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past, a collective desire to create a redemptive moment. On the third pitch of the at bat, Teddy Ballgame swung mightily and crushed the baseball into the Red Sox bullpen. ted-williamsx-largeThough it was his last major league home run, Williams rounded the bases as he always did: hurriedly, head down, like a commuter dashing through a sudden downpour. And in spite of the cheering crowd, the pleas of his teammates, and the even entreaties of the other team, Ted steadfastly refused to tip his cap. Many sportswriters complained that this was emblematic of the legend’s arrogance and contempt for the fans. Updike put it more poetically:“Gods do not answer letters.” But I wonder if Williams’ refusal to end his career by tipping his cap stemmed from a fundamental conviction that his relationship with Boston could not be changed in a single cathartic moment, that his purpose was not to play a mere role in the great narrative of baseball, that no matter how we may want our stories to play out, the people at the heart of them are more important.

In the passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus is once again squaring off against the Pharisees. And once again, the subject of their dispute is the nature of God’s Law. As always, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a fairly straightforward question designed to test his familiarity with the Law in order to examine his claims of rabbinical authority. So, when Jesus responds by asking, “What did Moses command you?” the Pharisees must think they’ve finally won: “Some rabbi he is!” they might have thought. “He doesn’t even know the rule about divorce!” You can almost hear their smugness as they refer their opponent to Deuteronomy 24: “Well Jesus…Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her; surely everyone knows that.” But Jesus, who is playing a very different game than the Pharisees, accuses them of being hard-hearted, an epithet that recalls Pharaoh’s steadfast refusal to let God’s people go in the story of the Exodus. In other words, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think beyond what they believe the Law says and consider instead the ways it affects God’s people.

If we look at the portion of Deuteronomy the Pharisees refer to, it’s pretty clear that they are missing the point. The passage describes a hypothetical situation in which a man divorces his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce, putting it in her hand, and sending her out of his house. It goes on to explain that if she marries another and loses that husband through death or divorce, her first husband “is not permitted to take her again to be his wife…for that would be abhorrent to the Lord.” While this language doesn’t exactly empower women, its purpose is not to explain how a man goes about divorcing his wife. Rather, it articulates that a woman is not subject to the arbitrary whims of her first husband, that she cannot be treated as a commodity, that she has intrinsic value. The religious authorities, however, were reading this text not as an affirmation of human dignity, but as a prescription: “how to divorce your wife in three easy steps.” The Pharisees believed that if their wives did not fit neatly into their life plan for whatever reason, they could be removed from the equation with no more than a the stroke of a pen. They were so concerned with maintaining absolute control that they were willing to disregard the humanity of their wives. Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a surprising way. He doesn’t suggest that his opponents misunderstood the Law; he doesn’t even offer his own unique interpretation of the Law. imgresInstead, Jesus takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back before there was a Law, back to the moment when humanity came into being. He does this to remind his audience that we are all created by God. With this reminder, Jesus affirms that no one is disposable, that everyone has value, that no one’s purpose in this life is merely to play a role in someone else’s story. Jesus, in other words, frames the issue of divorce not in terms of whether it’s allowed or not, but rather in terms of how it affects the people involved.

It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus is not simply replacing one rule with another. By framing divorce within the context of creation, Jesus invites us to think about the issue, as he invites us to think about everything, in terms of what God has done and is doing rather than how we behave. At the same time, we can say with confidence that God is not in favor of divorce, not because it violates some abstract rule, but because of what it does to God’s people. Those of you who have experienced divorce know how painful it is, how dehumanizing it can feel, how it can eat you alive. But even in the midst of that pain, we are called to remember that we are created by God. Even as we bear witness to the migrant crisis in Europe, we are called to remember that those escaping from conflict are not statistics, they are people created by God. Even as we express our grief and outrage over the massacre in Oregon, we are called to remember the God-given humanity of everyone involved: the victims, the survivors, even the shooter. So often the sheer magnitude of the issues facing our broken world leads us to forget about the people at the heart of those stories of anguish and hope. Jesus calls us to remember their humanity, to remember that each and every one of them, and each and every one of us, was created and is beloved by God.

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Who We are Meant to Be

Sermon on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

As many of you know, my wife and I are cat people.  We have two adorable kitties that give us an incredible amount of joy, even though they can frustrate us at times.  Neither of us grew up with animals in the house; our foray into pet guardianship began when my wife somewhat arbitrarily decided to adopt a cat from the animal shelter in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  Gradually, we became so enamored of Winnie (who is named for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire) that we decided she needed a feline companion.  This led us to adopt Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) from a parishioner’s backyard.  We are, to put it mildly, smitten.

imagesNow, when some people find out that we are cat people, they are inclined to explain that cats aren’t nearly as cute and cuddly and innocent as we think they are, that they are, in fact, “evil.”  Now, I’m not particularly disposed to use the word “evil” for human beings, let alone animals that presumably have a limited understanding of morality.  Nevertheless these feline detractors will enumerate the reasons that, in their mind, cats are selfish, duplicitous, and unworthy of our affection.  For instance, they will explain that when cats nuzzle you, they aren’t showing affection, but are actually claiming you as their property.  Being a devoted cat guardian, I am familiar with this behavior and I’m fine with it.  Cats are territorial; they mark the things they want in their lives, whether they are scratching posts, food bowls, doorframes, or their human guardians.  But what really bugs me is what the anti-cat party thinks is the most damning evidence against cats.  They explain that unlike dogs, cats do not do anything useful.  Now, I love dogs, but dogs are bred to do useful things like retrieve and point and follow scents.  Cats weren’t bred to do any of these things.  As a civilization, we decided to keep cats around because they hunted and killed disease-carrying pests.  We developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals, benefiting from their natural instincts.  The anti-cat folks, in other words, tend not to like cats because they are not enough like dogs, and I don’t think that’s fair.  They need to be reminded that cats are not dogs, and that that’s okay.  We can’t fault these creatures for doing what they have evolved to do; we should celebrate cats and dogs and other animals for being what they are meant to be.

imgresToday is Trinity Sunday.  In the words of our Collect, it is the day we are called “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”  Put another way, it is the day we are reminded that as Christians, we have a truly unique understanding of monotheism.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that though God is one and there is but one God, God is made known to us as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Now, if this sounds wacky to you, you are not alone.  Adherents of other monotheistic traditions like Judaism or Islam smile to themselves whenever they hear us talk about the Trinity and claim to be monotheists.  Skeptics roll their eyes when Christians talk about the Trinity, thinking that we simply cannot count.  Even some traditions that claim Jesus Christ have eschewed the doctrine of the Trinity: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was adopted as God’s son and is not part of the Godhead, while Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct godlike figures.  Since its inception, in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the more challenging elements of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons the Trinity is so difficult for us to understand is that we have to deal with a substantial language barrier.  The Church fathers who first articulated Trinitarian doctrine used the Latin word personae to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  While “persons” is an accurate translation of this word, personae refers less to individual people and more to the ways that we experience people, kind of like the English derivative “persona.”  In fact, another way to translate personae is “masks.”  The early Church, in other words, was saying that we experience God in three very particular ways: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  Now, we are currently bordering on heresy; the Early Church would never say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mere masks of God.  Then again, when you talk about the Trinity for any length of time, you are almost always bordering on heresy.  In any case, this leads us to wonder: what was it that led the Early Church to affirm that we experience God in these very particular ways?  Why didn’t they simply say that God manifests God’s self in a variety of different fashions and leave it at that?  After all, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture and the references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are few and far between.  What was it that made the Church fathers reconsider the very nature of monotheism?

Part of the rationale is for this change is made clear in our gospel reading for today.  Matthew tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples on the mountaintop, where he gives them the Great Commission.  Of course, he tells his followers to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the most important Trinitarian moment in this passage.  That comes two verses before, when the evangelist tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus.  To our ears, this does not sound weird; Christians have been worshiping Jesus for almost two thousand years.  For devout first-century Jews, however, this was an astonishing statement.  One of the foundational confessions of the Jewish faith is the Shema, the affirmation that God is one and is the only one worthy of worship.  But for these disciples of Jesus, something had happened to persuade them that Jesus Christ was also worthy of worship, that Jesus Christ manifested the presence of God.  The Early Church saw this trend among the earliest followers of Jesus, saw that they recognized the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and began to wonder how exactly this was possible.  They began to wonder if Jesus Christ was somehow also God.

imgresBut perhaps the most compelling rationale for the doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the creation account from Genesis.  We are intimately familiar with this story: God speaks into the empty void and calls creation into existence.  The author of Genesis tells us that a wind from God swept over the waters of chaos prior to God saying “Let there be light.”  In Hebrew, the word for “wind” is ruah, same as the word for “Sprit.”  In other words, even before creation began, the Spirit was present in the chaos.  But this is not the reason the creation account points to the Trinity.  That comes later, six days later according to Genesis, when God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Theologians have wrestled with what it means to be made in the image of God for generations.  Does this statement in the creation account mean that God looks like a human being or does it mean something else?  Artists throughout history have interpreted this statement somewhat literally: God is depicted in many great works of art as a bearded man (just think of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).  To my mind, however, when the Genesis account tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” there is something deeper at play, something that I believe the Early Church recognized.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of Adam.  But in the first chapter, God creates woman and man at the same time.  God creates a micro-community of human beings, as if to say, “Human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another.”  I suspect that the Early Church looked at this story and said, “That must be what the image of God is.  If God created human beings to be in community, then community must exist at the very heart of God.”

Ultimately, this is why we take a Sunday every year to remember the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not so we can brush up on our fourth century theology.  Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to remember the divine community that grounds our very being, to remember that relationship exists at the very heart of God.  We celebrate the Trinity every year to remember that we are created in the image of that God, to remember that we are meant to be in relationship with one another.  The Trinity, in other words, reminds us who we are meant to be.  And just as cat detractors need to be reminded that it’s okay for cats to be cats, we need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, because it is so easy to forget.  We live in an age when abusing strangers anonymously behind the keys of a message board has become commonplace.  We live in an age when selfishness seems to be the order of the day.  We live in an age when we are too scared to admit we are vulnerable and so we wallow in loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.  The Trinity is a reminder that we are not meant to go through this life alone.  The divine community is a reminder that we are called to share what we have with others who have been created in God’s image.  The relationship at the heart of God is a reminder that we are called to see ourselves, to see God in those who are different from us.  As we gather in community this Trinity Sunday, I pray that we will reach out to those in our midst and those outside of these walls as we celebrate who we have been created to be.

It Can Wait

Lately, AT&T has been encouraging people to wait.

UnknownThe phone giant has released ad campaign called “It Can Wait,” which exhorts people to pledge that they will refrain from sending or checking text messages while they are on the road.  The impulse for the campaign is both noble and necessary: texting while driving can impair reaction times six times as much as driving while legally intoxicated.  Thousands of people are killed on U.S. roads every year because they or other drivers were texting.  Naturally, the rationale for the campaign is quite simple: there is no need for me to respond to a text message as soon as I receive it.  I can wait until I’ve arrived safely at my destination.  Whatever I am being contacted about, in other words, it can wait.

Our failure to recognize that “it can wait” extends far beyond our insistence on immediate responses to text messages.  There is a general lack of patience, a corporate failure to wait that has become part of our culture over the past several decades.  In some ways, this is related to my previous comments about the fact that we need to remember the importance of Sabbath.  But this failure to wait also has a significant impact on our relationships with other people and with ourselves.  We tend to prize the quick response or witty retort in conversations, but we often forget to consider how what we say can impact the people around us.  This seems particularly true in Internet comment sections.  People are so concerned with responding to another comment with a pithy and sometimes acerbic retort that they forget there is another person behind the comment they just lampooned.  Moreover, people are so concerned with not taking themselves too seriously that their first inclination is to make a joke of everything that happens to them or that they participate in, thus robbing these experiences of any further significance.

Imagine how different our interactions with other people and our understanding of ourselves can be if we simply wait before we respond.  What if we waited before we provided a knee jerk reaction to a comment that makes our blood boil?  What if we took a moment and tried to make sense of an experience before we turned it into a joke?  What if our first response to other people was to wait and remember that they are created by God before we make fun of them for their beliefs?  I suspect that even these brief pauses allow us to begin seeing the world through God’s eyes.  Waiting allows us to recognize that we are all equal in the eyes of God.  So the next time you come up with exactly the right way to verbally harpoon someone who disagrees with you, remember that it can wait.

Naked

For the next few days, I will be reflecting on finding grace at the gym, specifically Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

Over the past several months, I have been trying to make it to the gym more regularly.

Though I have been a member of the Abilene YMCA for several years, I’ve only just recently started exercising there with any regularity.  When I first became a member I was surprised (even shocked) by the number of naked people I saw on a daily basis.  The locker room was full of men disporting in the altogether, not at all concerned with the fact that they were naked.  For all I know, many of them might not have even realized that they were unclothed.  The last time I had spent any significant time in a locker room was when I and my teammates were still emerging from the throes of puberty, that time when boys are convinced that no one could possibly be experiencing the same things that they are experiencing.  In light of the embarrassment inherent to this condition, all of us had concocted various byzantine methods of changing out of our workout clothes while revealing as little skin as possible.  So it was more than a little surprising that in this locker room experience, pretense was abandoned and people paraded around shamelessly (and pantslessly) for everyone to see.

While I was initially shocked by the overabundance of skin in the YMCA locker room, I have gradually gotten to a point where the predominance of nakedness doesn’t bother me a whole lot.  I’ve even found myself having long conversations with gentlemen who are wearing nothing but a smile (even though I continue to remain covered up, at least relative to my locker room counterparts).  I’ve been wondering about the reason for the shift in my perspective.  On one hand, I’ve probably become desensitized; when you walk into a room where more than half the people are in various states of undress, there is a point at which you will no longer be surprised by much of anything.  On the other hand, I wonder if I’m somehow getting in closer touch with my status as a creature of God.

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Aren’t you glad this isn’t a picture of the YMCA men’s locker room?

Genesis tells us that when Adam and Eve disobey God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, the first symptom of their disobedience is that they cover themselves.  While the text tells us that they hide “because they knew that they were naked,” it’s pretty clear that they cover themselves because they are ashamed.  They are afraid that the imperfections that they perceive somehow make them unworthy in the eyes of God.  What they forgot was that after God created them, God called them “good.”  God called them good in spite of their imperfections, in spite of their nakedness, and in spite of their disobedience.  In the same way, we must remember that we have been created by God and that God calls each and every one of us good in spite of our unfaithfulness, in spite of our perceived imperfections, and in spite of our shame.  We are called to recognize our identity as creatures of God; we are called to remember that even in our nakedness, God has called us “good.”

Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.

Evacuation Day

Today is Evacuation Day.

240px-SiegeBostonFor those of you who didn’t grow up or haven’t spent any time in the Boston area, Evacuation Day commemorates the conclusion of the eleven-month Siege of Boston, when the British Army evacuated from Boston to Nova Scotia early in the Revolutionary War.  While it was George Washington’s first victory of the war and represented a morale boost to the beleaguered Continental Army, it wasn’t a terribly significant military victory.  Once the British had (easily) captured New York City, New England was almost completely cut off from the rest of the colonies, meaning that the rest of the war was mostly fought in the southern colonies.  So why does Boston close its schools and public offices to observe the anniversary of this relatively unimportant military victory?  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it’s also St. Patrick’s Day.

dpt_takeIf you know anything about American cultural history, you know that being from Boston in the 19th and early 20th centuries was practically synonymous with being Irish.  By the late 1800s, people of Irish descent lived throughout the city, and Irish politicians had, in turn, come to dominate the local Boston political establishment.  So when seeking an opportunity to reward their constituents with a day off on St. Patrick’s Day, these pols combed the annals of Boston history to discover any event of significance that had taken place on March 17th.  Thus, in 1901, the people of Boston began celebrating Evacuation Day with a St. Patrick’s Day parade and other celebrations of Irish culture.

While there is an element of this story that is politics-as-usual, there is also something beautiful about it.  In some ways, it is the embodiment of the American ideal: an ethnic group becomes so immersed in American life that the line between “American culture” and “Irish culture” almost ceases to exist.  Individuals are shaped not only by what they have been, but also by what they are becoming.  Ideally, this is what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  We enter into the community of the Church shaped by our past experiences and  influenced by the people we have known.  As we grow into our life in Christ we embrace new opportunities and new experiences; we are shaped by our relationship with other members of Christ’s body and transformed by our relationship with Christ himself.  In the meantime, however, we’re not meant to lose our sense of ourselves.  We are still who we were before, but our humanity and our sense of being a part of God’s creation has been renewed by Christ and his Church.  The season of Lent is our opportunity to embrace this renewal, to be mindful of the reality that we are shaped not only by what we have been, but by what we are becoming.