Posted by: dacalu | 20 March 2017

Banter with God

This Sunday, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle.  Here is my sermon.

Readings

Exodus 17:1-7 (“He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'”)

Romans 5:1-11 (“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”)

John 4:5-42 (Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well)

 

Sermon


“Is the Lord among us or not?”
It’s a great question.
The Israelites asked it in the dessert,
	and we ask it all the time.
We find the world unsatisfactory, so it’s good to ask,
	even when we find ourselves
	annoyed, disappointed, or angry.
“Is the Lord among us, or not?”

This, first, because it is a simple psychological truth,
	which somehow escapes a great many Christian preachers.
If you are in a relationship 
and you don’t voice your concerns
it will be an unhealthy relationship.
It may not last very long.
So, if we want a relationship with God,
	we must start with honesty about our thoughts and emotions.
“God, are you with us, or not?”
We are unlikely to get an answer
	if we do not ask.
Thus, there is a long and glorious tradition of obnoxious prophets
	questioning God:
	Moses is the prime example,
		but I might also mention Job, David, Jeremiah, and Peter.

The alternative is to passive-aggressively say nothing
and then suddenly blurt out how un-happy we are
that God is silent and somehow un-God-like.
That doesn’t end well.
Read Jonah.
Or read the tale of Exodus.
	The Israelites in the wilderness don’t converse with God,
		they whine to Moses and Aaron and their subordinates.
“Testing God” is the opposite of a question.
It’s when you think you know the answer
	and say God got it wrong.

So, we start with the question.
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Anytime you want to ask it, do.
	Pray.
	If you can’t think how to frame it,
		read the psalms for a while,
		or Job, or Lamentations, or Isaiah,
		or Julian of Norwich, or Teresa of Avila,
		or Madeline L’Engle, or Simone Weil,
		or Kiekegaard, Bonhoeffer, and King.
The Christian tradition is rife with people questioning God.
This is, after all, one of the benefits
	of a living, embodied, personal, human God.
You can talk to him.
If you’re not asking questions,
	you're doing it wrong.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.


Now, we come to the answer.
I can tell you what I think – of course I will – 
	but let me suggest that it will never be fully satisfying
	until you’ve heard it from God.
Whether I am right or wrong,
	your relationship with God is yours.
Go home and ask God what God thinks.
It is meet and right and your bounden duty so to do.

“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Yes. The Lord is among us,
	but never in quite the way we expect.
We’re a little insecure about this –
	one reason that Anglicans, and Christians historically,
	go around saying it all the time.
The Lord be with you.
(And also with you.)
It’s not just about wishing someone well;
	it is a declarative statement.
The Lord God IS with you.

And it holds up as you go back in time.
I’m very fond of the Elizabethan English:
	“The Lord be with you. And with thy spirit.”
God is as close as your very breath.
And even farther back, it would be
	Dominus tecum. Et cum spiritu tuo.

God is with us in our breathing,
	and in our living,
	and in our doing God’s will,
	and, as I talked about last week,
	in our faith, hope, and love.


With that in mind, let us turn to the rather long gospel reading – 
	the Samaritan woman.
For context, it helps to know that Samaritans and the Judeans
	did not get along.
The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh,
	living in the northern parts of Canaan,
	still worshipped God at Mount Gerizim, near Sychar,
	while the other tribes thought you had to travel to Mount Zion,
		to Jerusalem.
Thus, we had the kingdom of Israel in the north
	and the kingdom of Judah in the south.
Although they were one political entity at the time of Jesus,
	the religious tensions were palpable.
It also helps to know that women,
	particularly unmarried women,
	did not talk to strange men,
	a condition still common, if lamentable,
	in much of the world.
The more times I read the story,
	the more I can’t help but see it as banter,
	almost flirting,
	between two strangers at a well –
	the very well, as it happens,
	where Jacob flirted with Rachel.

For all the high theology in John’s gospel,
	he tells us very personal stories
	about Jesus as a son and as a friend.
I think we miss something if we try to make this
	an impersonal, cold interaction.
As always, I encourage you to read it for yourself,
	but at least once, read it as though you were reading Shakespeare.
	It makes a difference.
I will call the woman Photini, the Greek Orthodox name for her.

Jesus comes to the well and asks Photini for a drink of water.
She pauses and says, “How is it that you ask this of me? I don’t know you.”
And Jesus replies, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for a drink.”
“And how would you get it? Are you so great you don’t need a bucket?”
Jesus says, “This water is nothing. It’s temporary. The water I can give you will quench your thirst forever.”
“Right… Okay, I’ll take your water, it would save me having to come here all the time.”
She calls his bluff – 
but Jesus delivers.
He says, “Go get your husband.”
“I have no husband.”
“That’s right. You have no husband, 
but you’ve had five, 
and the man you’re living with is not your husband.
Things have gotten somewhat serious here,
	so Photini gets serious.
“I see you speak for God, 
well this place used to be good enough for God, 
but you Jews say we can only talk to God in Jerusalem.”
And Jesus answers with similar seriousness.
“The time has passed for worshipping God on a mountain. 
“Now we worship with our very breath and with truth.”
“I know the Messiah is coming.”
“That would be me.”

It is a serious conversation,
	and it is a very familiar conversation.
It is a conversation all about trust 
and communication
and questions.
Photini models for us what it means to have a real,
	intimate, conversation with God –
	to question and to listen for the answers.
She also models the right response.
She evangelizes – once again with a tinge of humor.
	“This can’t be the Messiah, can it?  Come and see.”
And it comes at the beginning of John’s gospel,
	when he is telling us what it means to spread the good news,
	through the Disciples and Nicodemus,
	but also with wine and healing.
We are told that many Samaritans believed 
because of her testimony.
It’s worth remembering Photini, the Samaritan woman,
	and God’s willingness,
	to speak to us all directly.


Last week, I spoke about Abraham,
	who was reckoned as righteous,
	almost in spite of himself.
His salvation came about through his faith –
	his personal relationship with God –
	and through God’s grace –
	that free gift of love, light, and life
		by which God recreates the world.
Last week, I said,
	don't worry about your salvation,
	don’t worry about yourself at all.
Christianity is about God working God’s purpose out.

This week, I want to say this.
	There is a way to think about you.
	Think about your relationship with God,
		and think about how that relationship
		overflows into your relationships with others.
	Think about what it means to share your very self with God,
		to ask for what nourishes you,
		and for the ability to nourish others.
	Think about what it means to listen,
		to hear God speaking in unexpected places
		through unexpected people,
		in unexpected ways.
The water that satisfies is the Spirit of God,
	and the spirit is light and life.
	It is breath and truth.
I do not mean this in some abstract way, but concretely.
	God is in the light and in our ability to see.
	God is in our fleshy particularity,
		and in our ability to eat and grow.
	What we do at this table is a sanctification
		of the sharing and eating and growing
		we do every day of our lives.
	God is also in your breath and in your breathing,
		never farther, nor less significant,
		than the oxygen, which powers you.
	God is truth – real honest conversations,
		deep questions,
		and the longing for answers that always calls us 
into a deeper understanding of God and one another.
Come and see.
Be amazed.
Be delighted.
Be unashamed to share the water of life,
	in faith, hope, and love.
What has been given to you, in Christ Jesus,
	was meant to be given away.



 

 

Posted by: dacalu | 18 March 2017

One Note Words

A menagerie,
	legged, lettered beasties,
	feasting on their fellows
	animate in their multiplicity,
	until a single phrase, lion-like
	arches its back and roars.
Every word has a history,
	distance of time and dissonance of meaning,
	layered as a symphony,
	quiet here…    then louder, prouder, crowding,
	always puttering, fluttering, muttering a sound
		in the background
	rhyming the timing until a beat can be heard.
	Word.
No word is alone.
	Each one carries a mystery,
	consonant with countless stories
	where precedents rule,
	valences cover and reveal,
	vowels and avowals and row upon row of 
		interacting lines;
They form a grid of meaning.
	
“Talk plain,” they say.
“Be clear.”
“Say one thing at a time.”

What? Don’t be ironic, iconic, literary or literal, littoral,
	bordering on the insane?
Am I inane?
Or does every hue color the canvas,
	every hew reveal a different plane of thought
	and every thought reverberate off 
	of the cacophony
	of meanings?

One note words.
Plain talk.
Easy to say, “speak plain.”
Easy to think
	I can’t know you, can’t see you, can’t be you
	unless you use simple words,
	my words, by-words of familiarity.

My words are long and drip with weight,
	meaning soaked-in from freight of years
	and heavy use,
	like sponges worn with care.

What I want to say won’t fit 
in one note words. 
Posted by: dacalu | 13 March 2017

The Breath of God

Yesterday, it was my pleasure to worship with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle for the second Sunday in Lent.

Readings

Genesis 12:1-4a (God calls Abram)

Psalm 121 (I lift up my eyes to the hills”)

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”)

John 3:1-17 (Jesus and Nicodemus, “You must be born from above.”)

 

Sermon

I do not work for my own salvation.
I work for yours,
	as I hope you will work for mine.
As we enter the second week of Lent,
	we get two obscure passages of scripture,
	both frequently cited,
	both difficult to understand:
	Paul talking about Abraham
	and Jesus talking to Nicodemus.
Both passages ask us to shift our perspective,
	indeed to shift our priorities;
to stop thinking about helping ourselves
	and start thinking about God helping others.
Let me say that again:
to stop thinking about helping ourselves
	and start thinking about God helping others.
It can be easy to stop halfway there.
	It can be easy to focus on God helping me,
	or even me helping someone else,
	but the truth is more wondrous than that.
William Temple, 
Archbishop of Canterbury during the second world war, 
put it this way:
“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself 
than of other people, 
nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. 
It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

And yet, when I say this, I recognize that I am involved in the process.
It is not enough to sit still and let God do everything,
	for sitting still is also an action I might chose.
The choice to do nothing means I have focused on myself,
	said, “I will do nothing so that God may do something.”
Perhaps there is a time for that,
	but more often, we must attend to God and neighbor,
	forgetting about ourselves
	so that, through us, and with us, and in us,
	God may continue to work
	as God has worked from the beginning.

This is the challenge,
	to let God be God in me.
Or, if you prefer more traditional language,
	to be born of the Spirit,
	to rest on grace and be reckoned righteous.

When God first came to Abram,
	the Lord promises to bless him
	so that he will be a blessing to others.
We see this as the greatest gift,
	the ability to be a gift to others –
		to have such an abundance of faith, hope, and love
		that they overflow onto others.
	Nor can we have faith, hope, and love 
in any other way.
By their nature, these gifts are shared.
	We must have faith IN, hope FOR, love OF
		something beyond ourselves.
	I might add joy,
		for we take joy in the world as well.
	It is more than simple happiness or pleasure,
		but delight in our role in the world.
	It is a recognition that we are a blessing.
And so Abram becomes Abraham.
	One letter, but one very significant letter.
	Abram becomes Abraham so that his very name
		reflects the presence of God in his life,
		in his identity.
In the same way, Samu-EL, Micha-EL, and Rafa-EL
	contain “El,” the Hebrew word for God.
It seems no accident to me that God uses the letter ‘He.’
	Like our ‘H’, it is a breath or aspiration.
Abram becomes Abraham because the breath of God
	has become part of his identity.
Sarai becomes Sarah.
God breaths on them, and in them, and through them,
	making them Godly,
	making them a blessing to others.

Which brings us to Romans,
	one of my favorite letters, but
	arguably the most abused book of the Bible.
I strongly encourage you to read it beginning to end,
	and form your own opinion.
For my part, the theme is this:
	“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” [Rom 3:23]
	You, me, and everyone else.
	We cannot recover through our own works,
		through the merits of our flesh – that is our individuality –
		or through the law – that is our ability to follow rules.
	We can only recover by the power of the Spirit,
the same Breath, breathing in us that breathed in Christ Jesus.
	“You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God
		in Christ Jesus.” [Rom 6:11]
“Each of us must please our neighbor 
for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. 
For Christ did not please himself.” [Rom 15:2-3a]
It is important to read from beginning to end 
to see the arc of the argument.
	We are each sinful; we recover together.
In this context, the passage about Abraham begins to make sense.
He did not earn the title Father of Nations.
	He did not become the touchstone of three faiths,
	one half the people on the planet Earth,
	because he was a really good guy.
Remember Genesis: Abraham was a bit of a schmuck
	to his wife, Sarah,
	to his consort, Hagar,
	to his son, Isaac.
We remember many disturbing stories of Abraham.
And, though he did many important things,
	many righteous things,
it was not his good conduct or good intentions or luck
	that made him great.
It was the Spirit of God, moving in him.
	It was the ‘He’ that changed him from Abram to Abraham –
	It was the ‘He’ that changed Sarai to Sarah –
	that brought about Israel, Islam, and Christianity.
His greatness did not come from any belief that he possessed,
	any motion of his hand,
	any word on his lips, or
	any thought in his mind.
This is the mistake so many make,
	to make of faith an action of the mind: assent, will, choice.
Those are important to be sure,
	but they are not grace.
Grace comes by the will of God alone, acting in us,
	stirring up the dust, and making us live.
Grace is the overflowing of faith, hope, love, and joy,
	through Christ into us,
	and through us into one another,
	and through us all into the world.
Grace is the gift of the Spirit, 
which is, after all,
nothing more than the Greek word for breath. 
[Gk: pneuma; Latin: spiritus; English: breath]
God’s breath works through us,
	that same breath that was in Christ Jesus.

My greatest hope comes from the chance
	that I might be, in some way, like Abraham,
	God’s gift to the nations.
I do not work for my own salvation.
I work for yours,
	as I hope you will work for mine.

There is, of course, nothing I can do,
	in and of myself, to bring this about.
It is all God working in me.
And yet I hope…
I hope that some small action of mine might contribute.
I hope that some small will of mine might be the will of God.
I hope that I might be for someone,
	in some small way,
	what Christ has been for me,
	and what so many others have been for me:
	the very image and likeness of God.
I do this without believing in my own power.
	The only power I have is God working within me.
I do this without concern for personal gain,
	but only for that which benefits us all,
	the re-creation of the world,
	the coming Kingdom.

It is a strange business,
	this hope that places no confidence in self,
	that has no focus on self,
	but only the life of the world.
It is a strange business, seeming foolishness,
	and yet it works.
	It brings about miracles.
It is not about trying, though it is good that we try.
It is about prayer,
	letting God be God,
	and giving thanks every moment of every day,
	that we participate.
It is about the harvest,
	watching faith rewarded with spiritual growth,
	watching hope rewarded with endurance and maturation,
	watching love rewarded with deeper love,
	and watching joy abound.
It is about the choice to turn to God,
	not just with our whole lives, but with each moment.


This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus.
It is good to follow the rules of your religion.
It is good to be a good person in the world.
But it is better to put your trust in God.
	God is not an idea or an identity.
	God is not an action.
	God is God,
		and we see God in the Spirit that flows out from us into the world.
We alone are nothing,
	we together, in that Spirit, are everything.
“The wind blows where it chooses, 
and you hear the sound of it, 
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. 
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Our hope cannot be planned.

“For in hope we were saved. 
Now hope that is seen is not hope. 
For who hopes for what is seen? 
But if we hope for what we do not see, 
we wait for it with patience.” [Rom 8:24-25]
We wait, and we act in love, and we pray
	that when the wind blows,
	it will blow through us.


Can I be still enough, that I will not get in the way?
Can I be light enough on my feet,
	that when the wind blows,
	I will flow with it?
Perhaps.
I have hope in Christ,
	and in a multitude of saints,
	through whom that same wind has blown.
It is as close as my breath,
	despite blowing over many nations.

So, I will not ask you to start having faith.
I will ask you, this Lent, to consider what within you,
	gets in the way of the faith that already stirs you to action.
I will not ask you to start having hope,
	but to loosen your grip on that which
	holds hope down.
I will not ask you to love,
	but to see the love within you,
	and flow with it – to the benefit of the world.

Wherever you can,
	stop thinking about you,
	and start thinking about the light, life, and joy
	that makes you more than dust.
Posted by: dacalu | 21 February 2017

When to Say Sorry

I love English. We have a variety of useful words for every occasion. We can speak clearly and briefly without losing detail. Alas, not everyone uses the language as carefully as we might wish. Today, I want to talk about an overused word: “sorry.”

True sorrow and repentance are powerful emotions, but we weaken their power when we confuse them with automatic politeness. I want to speak for the word “sorry” and the tremendous power it can have when used properly.  Here are Lucas’ rules for when to say “sorry.”

A. Say, “I’m sorry” to express sorrow over events when you have no control over them.

“I was so sorry to hear about the earthquake. It must have been terrifying.”

The word sorrow conveys great and distressing sadness. Sadly, we rarely use it when speaking of ourselves, but we retain this word, “sorry” when speaking of sadness at the misfortune of a neighbor. Honesty requires that we reserve this use for times when

  • Someone else has suffered
  • We enter into their sorrow with them
  • We had no control over the events in question.

I’m sorry can mean, “I feel your sorrow with you.” Importantly, we must be careful not to minimize: “I’m sorry about X; at least Y.” Nor to blame: “I’m sorry you chose to X.” Nor to compare: “I’m sorry about X; something Xish happened to me…”  I don’t doubt that there are times to minimize, blame, and compare. I simply feel that those actions do not warrant the use of the word, “sorry.”

Sorrow, as an emotion, blocks out everything else excepting faith, hope, and love. Thus, it is often useful to say, “I’m so sorry and am here with you” (faith), “I’m so sorry; we’ll make it through, somehow” (hope), and “I love you and am so sorry this happened to you” (love). Take careful note that the hope version must be a common, non-specific hope. Otherwise it swiftly turns into judgment and problem-solving. All other additives are simply incompatible with actual sorrow.

B. Say, “I’m sorry” to express regret over something you did when you have rethought the action, would now choose differently, and are willing to make amends.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I know how worried you were. Let me give you my cell number, so you can reach me if you don’t hear.”

We can be genuinely sorrowful about our own past actions, but in this case, sorrow must come with true repentance. I’m sorry I did it. I take responsibility for doing it and for dealing with the consequences.

We cannot feel real sorrow over actions that we would not change. We may feel sorrow over the situation we were in, but that is another sort of emotion – as much about feeling sorry for ourselves as for the other person. “I’m sorry” is not helpful in this situation, as it is, in effect, adding salt to a wound – complaining about how unfortunate we are to have had to hurt them.

No doubt the situation will occur. No one with power and responsibility can avoid making decisions that others find distressing. I accept that. I ask only that you not compound the slight by complaining about it.

True repentance is powerful. You have thought about your actions and so become a different person. You have paid attention and learned something from the consequences. Above all, repentance shows you care about your relationship with someone else. “I’m sorry,” can be the greatest gift you can give to someone you have wronged – but it must be sincere.

In rare cases, we revert to sorrow A. If I were a banker who had exhausted all avenues at my disposal, I might say “I’m sorry we cannot give you a loan.” That is “I’m sorry that the policies are set up in such a way that we cannot give you a loan. I think you should get one, but I cannot figure out how to…and I tried…repeatedly. I’ll be thinking about how to change the policies.” Just know that it is case A and involves events beyond your control.

Don’t be a “sorry, but.” There is never – ever – in any situation – a reason to use these two words together. “But” implies a reservation. You can either be unreservedly sorry (A) and it is out of your hands or unreservedly sorry (B) and attempting to fix the problem. Other emotions are not sorrow. “Sorry, but” most often hides an excuse for why one is not actually repentant or sorrowful. Please, don’t do

“I’m sorry if,” is also problematic. You might have done something bad but haven’t bothered to find out. Take the time and turn it into a “I’m sorry that.” Otherwise, it’s not the right time for the word.

C. Say, “Sorry” when genuinely feeling bad about very small social interactions.

I have enough British friends to add a third category. The phrase “excuse me” is considered terribly rude in some parts of the world, and the phrase “sorry” (no I’m) takes its place. British folk, in my experience, use sorry as a place holder for,

“Alas, we have an unscheduled social interaction. It requires me to enter your personal space. Compelled by circumstance, I may have to touch you or move your belongings. It grieves me greatly, but I will not intrude upon your person more than necessary with explanations. Let us contrive to ignore one another as much as possible, while muddling through.”

While not actual sorrow, it is useful.

It is useful because it is brief. Added words destroy that usefulness. Thus, it will not work if you anticipate actual conversation.

 
I will not apologize for potentially offending you. I will, however, ask you to share a better view of the word and its uses. I look forward to being sorry (B); it gives me a chance to improve myself and welcome help with that.

Thank you for listening.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

Bishop’s Silver Atonement

Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement.  Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago.  Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog.  The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime.  In my first post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In the next post, I summarized popular Christian explanations. Now I turn to my own take.

 

The Bishop’s Silver

My own theory about atonement draws on the novel Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1962. The kindly Bishop of Digne is a figure of Christ. By saving Jean Valjean from the police, at personal cost, he shows what it means to love selflessly. This example leads Valjean to reform and devote his life to serving others. The Bishop is the moral example against which we are to compare the rest of the novel.

The first few chapters tell us that the bishop is a humble man who had given up most of his worldly goods. He had left his palace, so that it might be used as a hospital, and lives on one tenth of his income, giving the rest to the poor. His only extravagance is a pair of solid silver candlesticks.

The novel’s hero, Valjean, is an ex-convict. He cannot find work or a place to stay because no-one wants to deal with someone who has been in prison. With nowhere else to turn, Valjean stumbles across the bishop’s house, where he is warmly welcomed. Fearing for his future, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night, steals the silverware and flees the house – only to be caught by the police. He tells them that he was a guest of the bishop, who had given him the silver. They didn’t believe him. But, when the police bring him to the house, the bishop confirms his story and goes a step further. He takes his candlesticks from the cabinet and says, “you left so quickly, you forgot the best part.” After the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that God has saved him and now he owes God his life. After some misadventures and poor choices, Valjean takes this to heart and begins to live a life of service to others. The book explores this fundamental choice of compassion over justice as it plays out in several characters. The musical successfully introduces the major themes, but if you have the patience, the (1500 page) book covers the topic with poetry and sophistication.

The message for theology is clear enough. In Bishop’s Silver Atonement, God has given Jesus to humanity as a freewill gift. God loves us and shares life with us, becoming one of us and approaching us where we are. Humanity, in turn, attempts to steal the gift. Both Romans and Judeans take advantage of the power they have been given, trying to manipulate and control Jesus. Friends and enemies begin to see his vulnerability as an opportunity to gain power for themselves. They torture and kill the God made flesh. They literally steal Jesus’ life.

Like the bishop, God refuses to punish the thieves. Instead, God’s love transforms theft into gift. Without ignoring or endorsing human selfishness and malice, God turns the crime into an opportunity. It saves us from the immediate consequences and shows us how to live into a better life. We are forgiven and empowered to forgive by God’s sacrifice.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

Atonement Options

Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement.  Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago.  Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog.  The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime.  In my last post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In this post, I tackle some of the most popular theories for how this works.

How Does Atonement Work?

The interesting question for most of us is personal. How do we become at-one with God, neighbor, and world? The answer to that has to do with what faith, hope, and love look like in practice. It’s a big topic because there are so many ways to do it. One of them is research, reflection, and conversation about reality – which I’m attempting here. Other ways have to do with repentance, community, and forgiveness. For now, I will look at the traditional question of how Jesus brings about atonement.

Once we start looking at the details, atonement can be both confusing and troubling. This is one of the few areas that I do not consider myself orthodox. Despite finding them useful, I simply cannot accept the prominent Christian explanations. Let me explain why (with excruciating and problematic brevity). [Better yet, read this scholarly yet approachable summary.]

Ransom Theories (Christus Victor)

(“All your soul are belong to us.”)

  • Humans are in bondage (to death) because we sold ourselves to the Devil.
  • God ransomed us by offering Jesus in exchange for us.
  • Having captured Jesus, the Devil found him impossible to bind (keep dead).
  • Now we and Jesus are free.

Problems

  • Why did God set things up so people could be bound?
  • Who trades away their son? Isn’t God being a little deceptive?
  • Why doesn’t God simply command the Devil to set us free?
  • Does this set up the Devil as somehow equal to and in competition with God?
  • Did Jesus actually do anything?

Moral Exemplar Theories

(“Jesus show me the way.”)

  • Humans are clueless.
  • Jesus showed us how to behave to find God.
  • AND Humans are weak.
  • Jesus actions strengthened us so that we can follow.

Problems

  • Why are humans so clueless and weak?
  • Why did Jesus teach us in such an unpleasant manner (abandonment, torture, and crucifixion)?
  • Shouldn’t there be other (easier) ways for us to learn?
  • If Jesus action is a teaching and and empowerment, why does the Bible talk so much about priesthood, sacrifice, and penance?

Satisfaction Theories

(“Help, I’ve Fallen and I can’t get up.”)

  • Humans offended God and thus owe a debt (to God).
  • We cannot earn more.
  • We cannot pay off the debt.
  • Jesus, being divine, can pay.
  • Jesus, being human, can pay the debt of humanity.

Technically, that’s pecuniary (monetary) substitution, but the same idea applies to penal substitution – we’re in jail and can’t let ourselves out – etc. The most popular version invokes the dignity of God, which we have trespassed by not respecting God properly. To modern ears, it might sound better to say we are at a party have said something so offensive that the room went silent out of shock. We are too flustered to say anything more and they are all too aghast.  (You know you’ve been there.) Jesus steps in and saves the friendships. In any case, it all comes back to an un-repay-able; only the currency changes.

Problems

  • Who set up the banking system?
  • Why doesn’t God forgive the debt?
  • Isn’t cruel to take money from someone who can’t earn more – even if is “just”?

All three types of atonement theory set God up to be a bit of a jerk – to the Devil, to us, and to Jesus. If God is wholly in charge, why is the system seemingly rigged. I will admit, I think this is the sort of thing that may be beyond human comprehension. That’s not just an easy out; perhaps we are messed up precisely because our condition blinds us to both reality and justice. Still… I want my theory of atonement to be helpful. Once I admit that I don’t understand it, I can go back and say, “Let’s pick a theory that is least obnoxious and most useful.” With that in mind, I introduce my own take in the next post.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2017

At-one-ment

Over the past 20 I have been asked repeatedly for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement. Every time I want to link to the lovely blog “I wrote a few years ago.” Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog. The subject is tricky and deserves a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime. So, here is my sketch in three parts.  First, what is “atonement”?

What is Atonement?

In short, “atonement” is the word Christians use when speaking about our separation from God and how Jesus managed to bridge the gap. It usually goes something like this.

  • Adam and Eve messed up, resulting in a falling-out with God.
  • This original mistake passes from generation to generation; we are born with a broken relationship to God, neighbor, and cosmos.
  • Humans alone cannot mend the break.
  • Jesus did, though the process is still working itself out.

Hopefully that gives you the basics of what Christians call “The Fall,” “Original Sin,” “Salvation by Grace (gift) alone,” and “Atonement.” I tried to avoid using those words, because each one is loaded with centuries of commentary and some doctrines that many Christians disagree about.

I agree with that statement wholeheartedly (as stated). Still, I can see where people might have concerns:

  • about Adam and Eve – did they literally exist?
  • about what sin is and how it is transmitted – is intention required?
  • about our role in fixing the problem – how much power do we have?
  • about the effect of Jesus – did he save all or some?

Great questions. I’m not going to deal with them here.  So, let’s give a simpler, more immediate statement that I see as more useful, if you’re just getting into Christianity – or theology.

  • The world is unsatisfactory: I don’t have the relationships I would like, my priorities seem messed up, and I can’t even do the good things I want to do.
  • The problem seems to apply to everyone.
  • I’m at a loss to figure out how this might be fixed through any of the obvious solutions (e.g., getting power, physical discipline, self-denial, education, introspection) – and after serious attention to those options.
  • Jesus, by act and example, appears to be opening a way to make things genuinely better.

The word “atonement” has a wonderful history. It is an English word coined literally to capture “at-one-ment.” It is the process of coming together with someone from whom you have been separated. In other words, atonement is reconciliation.  Other meanings – including reparation, satisfaction, paying compensation, and doing penance are more recent and based on atonement theologies to which I will not here commit. And, of course, the Bible talks about atonement at length, both technically (in Leviticus and Hebrews) and more generally (everywhere else). It’s a pretty central concept.

The key element is this. It works for me. As a Christian, I find the world less unsatisfactory. My relationships are easier more fulfilling, my priorities more satisfying, and my actions more effective.

But how does it work? That’s the interesting question. You can read about popular historical answers or jump to my own position.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2017

Grand and Modest Goods

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Laurelhurst. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 58:1-9a (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice”)

Psalm 112:1-9 (“They have given freely to the poor”)

I Corinthians 2:1-12 (“we speak God’s wisdom”)

Matthew 5:13-22 (“You are the salt of the Earth” and “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”)

Sermon

There are many ways of being good, of being righteous.
There is visible good and invisible good.
	The first, the visible good, 
includes things we do for others
in the public eye:
philanthropy, piety,
going to church, public service.
	The invisible good
		Includes things we do in private:
		anonymous gifts, daily prayers,
		living simply so that we have more for charity.
Jesus makes fun of the Pharisees 
for practicing their piety in public,
for doing good works so that they will get credit from others.
We must do visible good somestimes, of course.
	How else can we set a good example?
	Most of our life is lived in public, after all.
And yet, Jesus tells us this kind of good is already rewarded – 
	Just about half a page after today’s gospel line:
	“let your light shine before others.”
It’s a little confusing, a little contradictory,
	but I think the message is clear.
We must do good for the sake of doing good,
	without thinking too much about what it does to our image,
	or even thinking about what it will do for spiritual health.
One benefit of Christianity is that, at its best,
	it frees us from thinking about ourselves at all.
We do what must be done.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this sermon before.
Excellent. It’s a good sermon and worthy of repetition,
	but today I want to use it as a jumping off point.
I want to remind you that it is difficult sometimes to figure out
	the good.
Even Jesus gives us measured words for a balanced approach
	to the good.
Doing good takes work, first to find the good:
	praying, reading scripture, talking with others,
	and, of course, paying attention to whether the good we want
	is the good we accomplish.

When you have the time, I encourage you to sit down with
	the Sermon on the Mount.
Read chapters 5-7 of Matthew in one go.
	We can only read so much in church,
	and it’s easy to view it as a collection of little advice,
		one anecdote or parable or rule
		after another.
If you sit down with the ten commandments,
	and read it beginning to end,
	you will see a pattern.
Jesus is giving us commentary on what it means
	to fulfill the law.
The law says: don’t commit murder.
	Jesus says: love one another and avoid anger (5:21-26)
The law says: don’t commit adultery.
	Jesus says: respect one another;
	do not treat people as disposable objects. (5:27-31)
The law says: don’t swear falsely.
	Jesus says: only speak the truth. (5:33-37)
The law says: don’t steal.
	Jesus says: do not stop others from stealing from you. (5:38-42)
	I promise you that’s in there.
	We don’t talk about it much because it’s rather uncomfortable.
Jesus goes on to say: 
don’t even bother owning things in the first place. (6:19-34)
Yup.  That’s in there, too.

Just as with the visible and the invisible good,
	most Christians recognize a need for balance.
	Jesus tells us to use our talents wisely
“For to all those who have, more will be given, 
and they will have an abundance; 
but from those who have nothing, 
even what they have will be taken away.” (25:14-30)
To be honest, I think our society has strayed
	a long way toward personal ownership,
	and we need more common goods
	to balance that out.
Still, I am not going to sell you on radical poverty or pure socialism.
	Neither one seems to work quite as well in practice
		as they do in theory.
Doing good can be a challenge.
So, we think about it, both alone and together,
	and try to work things out.

The balance of the day relates to what I’ll call
	“the grand good” and “the modest good.”
The grand good is a societal or long-lasting good.
	We want to eliminate poverty, 
create just governments,
use clean, renewable energy,
and end war and slavery.
More concretely, we want to
	reduce unemployment,
	get health care for everyone,
	pollute less,
	reverse climate change,
	and get out of the conflicts,
	we’re already in.
Grand goods are noble and worth fighting for,
	but we can only make very small, incremental change.
	Because they are so big and so important,
		we cannot achieve them alone,
		or quickly.
The modest good is the little good we do day to day.
	We feed the hungry,
		visit the sick and lonely,
		speak kindly and positively,
		tell the truth,
		and treat all property
			our own, others, or no-one’s
		with the respect due to God’s creation.

When Jesus calls you salt and light,
	he means that it is in your very nature to do these things,
	to do the modest good.
We are most fully human, when we act, daily
	for the daily betterment of all.

We do not blame Jesus for failing to bring down the Roman Empire
	(though many of his contemporaries did).
We do not blame Paul for failing to condemn slavery
	(though some theologians do).
We recognize the balance of striving for the greater goods,
	while actively and continuously doing the modest goods.

This is key to Christianity.
You are not responsible for the world.
God is.

We give thanks for the light that came into the world,
	for the gradual working out of truth, peace, and justice.
And, whatever you may think of the overall historical trend,
	we have much to be thankful for just now.
Historically, war is at an all-time low, 
and appears to be declining decade by decade for at least a century.
Worldwide, illiteracy has dropped from 85% to 15%
	since 1800 and continues to decline.
Poverty is much harder to define and measure, 
but estimates of people barely making it, look similar,
dropping from 40% to near 10% just in the last 20 years.
In the US, despite the media frenzy,
	violent crime has been declining rapidly
		for 25 years.
	Rape, gun violence, and police shootings all show consistent improvement.

To trust in God does not mean we stop fighting for these things,
	but it does mean we can live with the struggle,
	leaving the results up to God.
Jesus was obedient unto death,
	not because death was good,
	but because God asked.
Jesus gave himself into human hands
	to achieve a reconciliation between God and humanity.
And God made that reconciliation happen,
	though not in a way anyone would have imagined.

So, we give thanks for grand goods,
	we work for grand goods,
	and we accept that, in the long run,
 they are God’s to achieve

Meanwhile, we are responsible for the modest goods.
	We are responsible for the homeless man on our stoop,
		while we fight to end homelessness everywhere.
	We are responsible for having
		honest, open, caring conversations
		with people whose positions we detest,
		while we fight for a more civil society.
	We are responsible for voting, persuading, and speaking out
		while we fight for a government that represents us –
		and represents our values.

I know I am not alone at being frustrated by American politics.
It is always hard when the country is divided.
	It is hard for any group, 
struggling to come to a common idea of who they are.
It is hard for people who feel unrepresented,
	and for leaders who do not know how
	to best represent the people.
It is always disappointing when the powers of the world
	seem to align so poorly with the Spirit of Christ.
But this is the time when Christianity is most important.

I know that Danae has mentioned the feast of Candlemas,
	or the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple.
On February 2nd, we remember a young Jesus 
being brought before the community and offered to God
according to tradition.
We remember Simeon, an old man who was inspired with these words:

“Lord, you now have set your servant free
    to go in peace as you have promised; 
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 
A Light to enlighten the nations,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon gave thanks that he had lived long enough
	to see the promise of a savior fulfilled.
I think we, too, can give thanks, if we remember three rules:

First, give thanks for good in the world,
	above all for Jesus Christ,
	whose life and message is slowly working out God’s plan for us.
Give thanks for the obviously good,
	but also for the confusing, challenging, and frustrating.
Saint Augustine has this to say.

“Faith tells us only that God is. 
Love tells us that God is good. 
But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. 
And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. 
Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. 
And courage, so that what must be, will be.”

We can give thanks for anger and courage,
	even when we are sad they must be used.

Second, work for the grand good whenever you can.
	Keep your eyes open for the Savior,
	and what God is calling you to do for the whole world.
Fight as though the world depended on it.
	The world depends on your fighting.
	It does not depend on your succeeding.
	That’s God’s job.
	And God will make of your fighting
		a more amazing future than you imagined.
We must have patience, creativity and humor to live in that tension.

Third, work small works of modest good here and now,
	today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Act quietly, patiently, invisibly, and diligently
	for justice.
Love one another.
That love does not change the world.
It is the world.
The Spirit of God is that very life and light 
that moves between us when we love one another.
We are the Kingdom of God, here and now.
Jesus brought that into the world,
	and I am thoroughly grateful.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free
    to go in peace as you have promised; 
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 
A Light to enlighten the nations,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Posted by: dacalu | 25 December 2016

Mary and Joseph

Merry Christmas!  Today, I am celebrating the feast of Jesus Christ’s birth with the people of St. Stepehen’s, Laurelhurst. Recently, I challenged myself to tell the Christmas story more dynamically, so here is my attempt.

Prayer for Christmas

God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Christmas Readings from the Bible

Isaiah 9:2-7 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”)

Psalm 96 (“sing to the Lord, all the whole earth”)

Titus 2:11-14 (“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”)

Luke 2:1-20 (Angels and Shepherds speak of Christ)

Sermon

“He did what?”
I imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary saying this to Holy Anne, one bright morning.
“Joseph is really a lovely man. I know you’ll like him.”
	“Your father has arranged for a spring wedding.”
“But, mother…” And so on.

The Bible gives us very little in the way of details, 
though tradition suggests that Joseph was older, 
perhaps on a second marriage,
while Mary was in her late teens.
They must have been very special people, 
to do what they did, to raise Jesus,
so I imagine they knew and loved one another soon after they met,
though you never know;
perhaps they grew into their love.
In any case, Mary was nervous and Joseph was nervous.
	People did not date – probably did not socialize.
	They just might meet one another before the engagements.
Engagements were made by the groom and the father of the bride,
	or perhaps both sets of parents.

Mary, no doubt, took things in stride.
	She was that kind of person.
A friendship was born.
I’d like to think there was a romance as well.
Joseph with expectations from his first marriage,
	Mary not knowing what to expect,
	both discovering the other
	and finding themselves better for the relationship.
Still, it was a tenuous thing, this new couple.

So this is Mary, nervous and feeling somewhat alone,
	when an angel appears.
Perhaps Gabriel came as a flash of blinding light,
	an angel with wings and a halo,
	or as a strange man greeting Mary on the street.
Again, the Bible doesn’t say.
	I’m not sure which would be most frightening.
And again, I imagine Mary saying,
“He did what?”
My favorite image of the annunciation was painted 
by Jan van Eyck in 1435.
The angel Gabriel has beautiful rainbow wings
	and such a look of kind mischief on his face.
	I cannot properly describe it:
	all the wisdom and wit and compassion in the world.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, 
and you will name him Jesus.”

The implausibility of this has worn off in the past thousand years.
A virgin birth was no more expected 2000 years ago than it is today.
She could have said
	“Right….”
Instead, showing both humility and curiosity –
and perhaps a bit of awe, she said,
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

I must confess, the answer would not have satisfied me.
	Perhaps it did not satisfy her.
“God will breath on you, and the shadow of God’s power will fall on you,
	and you will have a child.”
To call it a miracle is to gloss over
	the sheer magnitude of it.
God breathed on Mary, just as God breathed on the mud to make Adam.
The truth broke into the world, that day.
	Something more real than we are,
	something eternal and dependable and kind,
	the very thing that holds up the order of creation.
God acted.

Nor was this insignificant to Mary, emotionally.
I worried about that for a bit,
	but no, the angel announces first, 
and then Mary accepts God’s proposal:
	“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; 
let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary participated.
And the world was changed.

There was a hope that had never been there before.
God became human in that moment.
God, the will and order of the universe,
	was also and for the first time,
	fully present with us,
	as one of us.

That probably didn’t make it any easier for Mary.
What would Joseph say?
How could she live with a child that was not from her husband?
Who would believe her?

Mary was perplexed.
It is one thing to be told your child will be the living God,
	the savior of Israel.
It is another to figure out what you’re going to do
	with an unexpected pregnancy.

Let us switch scene to Joseph finding out about Mary.
I imagine he was a little less calm about the whole thing?
“She’s pregnant?”
He was a kind man.
	For both of their sakes, 
he wanted to end the engagement quietly.
It made no sense to him to raise someone else’s child,
	but there was no reason to call undo attention to Mary,
	no matter what kind of trouble she’d gotten herself into.
Again, an angel appeared,
	telling Joseph to be unafraid,
	for Mary’s child would be the Son of God,
	and God who is with us.
Joseph too, was perplexed,
	but he had faith,
	in God, in the angel, and in Mary.
He would marry her, anyway.


Our hope is based on the decisions of two people,
	who had no idea what was going on.
They asked questions.
	I’m not talking about unquestioning obedience;
	I’m talking about struggling to get things right
		while being utterly confounded.
If anything, we are in a far better place to deal with the mystery than they were.
We have a better understanding of human reproduction.
	We have a better understanding of physics and medicine and custom.
	We have two thousand years of commentary to draw on.
And yes, we’re not caught in the middle of the mess.
They were.
Our hope is based on two people,
	who had reason to doubt each other,
	and fear their situation,
	even their sanity, I suppose.
They chose hope.
And so, we have hope.
They chose one another.
And so, we have Christ, God with us.

Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem.
Their own troubles were not enough.
We have no idea what their families thought about the whole thing.
We have no idea whether Mary’s parents believed them.
We have no idea whether Joseph’s parents believed them.
It was a mess.

Add to this, a foreign occupation.
Israel was under new management.
For two generations, Roman legions had been tromping around,
	sacking cities and messing with internal affairs.
Even that was fraying, as the puppet King, Herod the Great,
	died, dividing the land into three separate countries.
Shortly after, Rome marched in and took direct control,
	installing a prefect or governor.

It’s not clear when Jesus arrived,
	during the reign of the puppet king,
	during the breakup of the kingdom,
	or after the Romans had officially moved in.
In any case, it was a mess.
The Emperor in Rome wanted to know how many subjects he had,
	so that he could tax them properly.
This was extremely unpopular and small scale rebellions were common.

This was the situation as Joseph and Mary set out from home,
	pregnant, confused, and still getting to know one another.
When they arrived, they could not even find a room to stay in,
	they had to sleep with the animals.
This is kinder than it sounds; the animals were warm and dry,
	but it would still be a serious inconvenience for a pregnant couple.


God was not born into a palace, or even a hotel.
God was born into our world,
	a place of discomfort and confusion, doubt and challenge,
	in a war-torn land, to parents who barely knew each other.

That should be normal for Christians,
	strange as it sounds.
We are a people who find hope, living in confusing, dangerous times.
We are a people who look for love and compassion
	in the faces of strangers.
We are a people who listen for angels – 
who may come in a flash of light,
	or meet us on the street.
We look for the coming kingdom in strange people,
	who never meet our expectations,
	but still live in faith, hope, and love.

 This was the political turmoil faced by shepherds,
	disreputable, poor, possibly anti-social souls,
	who caught the night shift with their sheep.
These were not the cream of Judean society.
	Nor would they have been inclined to trust authority,
	As they were the last and least.
An angel appeared suddenly, popping out of the darkness
	surrounded by light.
Again, I cannot say if it looked like an alien,
	a flying man,
	or just a very well dressed, glowing stranger.
Does it matter?
It was a person of power such as they had never seen.

And the angel said, “Do not be afraid! I have good news!”
Funny how they always start that way. “Do not be afraid.”
	Apparently, fear is the normal reaction.
“A savior has come to you. A Messiah.
	And you will know him because he is a baby
	lying in a feed trough.”

“Um. Excuse me, could you repeat that?”
Or perhaps they were so surprised that they couldn’t speak.

We think we are wiser now, more savvy to the ways of the world.
Perhaps we are.
We have physics and telecommunications and twitter.
But on that night, these shepherds knew something known only to a few.
And it was utterly beyond their comprehension.
It was, I think, more miraculous to them,
	more amazing,
	more unbelievable.
When suddenly the sky opened to reveal 
	more angels than they could count,
	singing praises to God,
	and wishing peace to everyone on Earth.
I don’t know about you, but if was visited by a stranger 
who wrapped up with
“Merry Christmas to you, and all the other Earthlings,”
it would give me pause.

In some ways, this is the first apocalypse in the New Testament,
	the first unveiling of the heavenly kingdom.
The shepherds saw a fraction of the heavenly court,
	the Divine order by which the cosmos is governed and sanctified.
They glimpsed the real underneath the illusion of daily life.
They saw the fulfilment of creation, just begun in Christ Jesus,
	born in a manger.
And so, they followed the instructions of the angels.
They went into Bethlehem, saw the child,
	and became his heralds and his choir,
	just as the angel host.
They were worthy to spread the news
	and they were the first to hear it
	despite expectations.

God calls us.
	Like the poor shepherds, terrified in the night;
	like Moses, stammering before the Ruler of Egypt;
	like Mary, asked to do something she never could have imagined.
God calls us to come and see the coming kingdom.
God calls us to visit the stables.
	There were quite a few barns in town.
	We must not assume they found Jesus right away.
	“Excuse me, sorry to barge in.
	Any chance you have the Messiah out with your livestock?
	No?  Mind if we check anyway?
	It’s just that an angel said…
	Why no, we’re not insane.
	Thank you anyway.
God calls us to look in the most unlikely of places,
	the neglected places,
	the difficult places,
	the places seemingly without hope.
That is where the Messiah is.
And when we find him,
	we have been asked to tell the world.

This is not reasonable.
This is messy, and complicated, and hopeful,
	and just a little bit mad,
	just a little bit anti-social.
We don’t get to be the angel host, awful and wonderful, musical and heavenly.
We are the shepherds, poking our head in uninvited,
	and saying, “Good news! God is here.”

Miles away, three wise men saw a star in the sky,
	a point of light, impossibly distant,
	but telling them of wonders beyond imagining.
They gathered gifts and left their home to find the wondrous child.
	They even stopped in with the local King,
	expecting to find Jesus at the very center of the world.
	He was not there.
The King encouraged them, 
	but secretly planned to kill Jesus when he was found.
After all, if you are already a King,
	who needs a Messiah.
If you are favored by heaven, 
	why would you want to meet the king of heaven,
	and ruin a good thing?
If you are not favored by heaven,
	but powerful in the world,
	how much less would you want to know the will of God?

We too, can only see God if we are willing to set aside the power
	we think is ours by right.
Whatever we own, whatever we have earned, 
	whatever respect we think we are due,
	all are paltry gifts for the God who made
	all that is,
	that set the planets in motion,
	around stars without number.

It’s been called the greatest story ever told,
	and this is certainly true,
	but it is not great because it features the Ruler of the Cosmos.
It is not great because of the host of angels, the empire, wars and conflicts.
It is not even great because the Son of God 
	is pure brightness and eternal glory.
The story is great because it features people like you and me,
	beset by doubt,
	surrounded by strife,
	struggling through a troubled world.
They were overwhelmed and dumbfounded,
	but in that, they kept their eyes open in hope,
	their minds open in faith,
	and their hearts open in love.


They reached out to one another in spite of expectations,
	they navigated propriety and society and taxes and empire,
	to bear the good news and be the good news of God with us.
The story is great because Jesus Christ 
	would be precisely this kind of person:
	a man, a son of loving parents, a sibling,
	a carpenter, a tax-payer, an outcast,
	a wedding guest, a rabble-rouser, a teacher,
	a criminal.
Jesus Christ would be attacked by hunger and doubt in the wilderness.
He would be befriended and abandoned.
He would face his fate with fear and uncertainty,
	as he asked God on the Mount of Olives to 
	give him a different task.
He would be silent before Pilate,
	and accept his execution with peace,
	surrendering his spirit to God,
	even while asking why he had been forsaken.
Jesus Christ would travel through doubt and danger,
	on the road to Jerusalem,
	just as his parents traveled, 
	pregnant toward Bethlehem,
	thirty years before.
They listened to God,
	hoped in the darkness,
	trusted in the danger,
	cried out for justice,
	and shared what good news they knew,
	knowing it would be enough.

This is the Christian story,
	and this is the Christian mystery,
	that humans do these things,
	that God, Creator and Governor of all that is or ever will be,
	came to be feeble with us,
	to hurt with us,
	to love with us and love us,
	as we struggle with reality.

This is the Christian story,
	that, implausible as it seems,
	humans do the work of remaking reality,
	bringing truth, justice, and peace.
We aspire to the clarity of angels in our singing,
	but we croak along all the same,
	because this is the voice we have,
	and this is the road we walk.

I love you,
	and I know how to love you
	because God loved me
	and because you loved me.
I love that this is our story,
	and it is my honor to tell it on this most holy day.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
 	and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Merry Christmas!





Posted by: dacalu | 23 December 2016

Steaders and Sailors

A chasm has opened in America. Two cultures compete for the soul of the country. They view the world differently, care about different things, and speak different languages. Though both care about the common life of the United States, each imagines that life in a different way. To one side, we live on homesteads, settled by pioneers, built with hard labor, and invested with all the pride of human skill. We made them and they are ours. To the other side, we live in a lifeboat, hard won from disaster, filled with refugees, but rowing steadily to the shore. Only by pulling together can we pull through. In the last election both sides felt threatened, because both sides see life as precarious. Both the steader and the sailor fear starvation and exposure. Both know our actions matter. Tragically, they see hope in different directions.

Homesteaders ask for buy-in, but saying “I’m in” isn’t enough. They want people who have shown their commitment by digging the soil and putting up barns. Thus, the world is always divided between us and them. “We” have tilled. “We” have built. They have not. More to the point, they have not tilled and built here. They have not bought into our homestead, so they don’t deserve the benefits of our food and our roof. Deserving will be key to homesteaders, who think in terms of property, the fruit of their labors.

Homesteaders are careful with their resources because they live in the wilderness. If their homestead fails, there will be no harbor for travelers. They feel obligated, practically and morally, to care for their property. Their idea of hospitality embraces both charity and reciprocity. In charity, they are willing to share – on a temporary basis – those without a home. The guest only deserves their charity if they are truly in need, and only receive it if the house has room to spare. Guests must be both undeserving and needy to receive charity. In reciprocity, steaders give in hopes of getting. You can stay at my place, if I can stay at yours. I’ll go to your party, if you’ll come to mine. In short, you can’t be hospitable unless you have a house. Not only will the steader turn away those who cannot pay, those who cannot pay will refuse to enter, for fear of creating a debt they cannot repay.

Homesteaders fear vagrants – unwelcome, undeserving, needy people who take hard earned bread from the house. Ownership means everything. If I made it, only I can say how it is used. Only I can say who gets the fruits of my labor. Their default view of a stranger will be a vagrant unless and until they can be shown to be another steader – to have bought-in to the system. Categories of in and out, us and them, family and outsider are useful because they tell you who has bought in and who has not.

Sailors in a lifeboat see the world differently. They arrived by chance, not choice, and must get along to survive. Whatever goods are in the boat, also arrived by chance, so they belong to the boat and not to individuals. Everyone is quite literally onboard, sailors by default. They are expected to contribute to keeping the boat afloat and moving toward shore. Those who do not contribute are demoted to passenger. They have opted-out. Passengers, however, still deserve all the food and shelter the boat can offer. Only by acting selfishly – by hoarding, stealing, or lying to other passengers – can they lose that status.

Sailors are careful with the boat’s resources because they are at sea. If the boat sinks or if they stop rowing, all souls go down. Food and shelter are distributed so that everyone gets what they need, regardless of what they deserve. The steader worries about letting people in, but the sailor worries she might have to leave someone out, or worse yet, cast them overboard. The sailor feels responsible for all the passengers. Every stranger is a survivor, a passenger, and potentially another sailor.

For the sailor, stewardship embraces both charity and equity. Charity means sharing with those in need, without thought to excess or deserving. It involves self-sacrifice. It means pulling people out of the water, even when the boat is packed. It means keeping the passengers comfortable, even when the crew suffers. In equity, sailors distribute food by some standard of equality. Everyone receives the same ration. This means sailors are more likely to give things to people who have less. Useful divisions identify people who can help and people who need help so that the one can serve the other.

Sailors fear defectors – passengers willing to get to shore by harming others. The mission means everything, but not just any mission, the mission of getting everyone home. They have a particular horror for defectors pretending to be crew – claiming to work for the common good while plotting to save themselves alone. Not only does it get in the way of the mission, it poisons the trust between passengers, because trust necessary for us to work together.

Smart steaders will doubt the need for crew or the idea that we are headed anywhere together. They made a homestead so that they could get away from others and others, as deserving as they might be, can pick up their own hoe and plant their own crops. Smart sailors will reply that the only alternative to the boat is the ocean and that even the boat will not work without rowers and bailers.

Steaders want a minimal government that they can opt into when it suits them. They want government of the deserving, by the deserving, and for the deserving. Sailors want a strong government that insures long-term cooperation, because cooperation is essential. They want government of the needy, by the needy, and for the needy. Both sides find the other horrifying.

The more I think about the two mind-sets, the more they explain the recent election. Steaders see Trump as a powerful ally. He represents a convenient associate for the moment to achieve personal success. They think that their support of him will be reciprocated. More than that, they find his ideas appealing: us and them, the deserving and the undeserving, mine and yours. Evangelicals and Libertarians have been thrust together by a common language of deserving, in and out, and the charity that flows from the laborer to the needy. At the same time, steaders fear that Obama and Hillary wanted to make them responsible for too many vagrants and strangers.

Sailors see Trump as a proud defector. He brags about both his self-sufficiency and his willingness to take advantage of others. They believe he will willingly sacrifice the good of the ship for his own interests. Worse still, he is putting steaders in charge of the boat, knowing that they will intentionally dismantle the systems that make cooperation possible. Sailors felt that Obama and Hillary represented responsible, self-sacrificing leadership that effectively moved the country in the right direction.

The two mindsets have radically different ideas, not only about the nation, but about charity and morality. Steaders find the obligatory charity of the lifeboat to be tyrannical – true charity must be freely given. Sailors find the surplus charity of the homestead to be arbitrary and condescending – true charity does not judge. Only by recognizing the size of the gap can we begin to bridge it. It truly is a question of how we view the world.

Older Posts »

Categories