Posted by: dacalu | 16 February 2018

Being Wrong and Being Right

This evening marked the start of something new, a tele-compline for the Society of Ordained Scientists. We live in distant places, so it’s good to check in every once in a while.  I shared this brief reflection.

What does being wrong feel like?
Journalist Kathryn Schulz asks this question in her 2010 book.
What does being wrong feel like?
	It turns out being wrong feels exactly like being right.
	The troubling thing is not being wrong but finding out we're wrong.
	That can be immensely difficult.
	We don't like discovering our errors,
		so we develop defense mechanisms to keep them hidden.
It's not all that surprising, once you think about it.
	We avoid painful things
		and finding out we're wrong is painful.
What we really want is defense mechanisms against being wrong.
	That takes community and methodology.
	It takes people we're willing to be vulnerable with,
		arguments we allow to change our minds,
		and openness to change.

Enter science.
	Science can provide exactly this kind of environment.
	One of the things I love most about science is its ability to self-correct.
Mind you, this is not the self-congratulatory, triumphal worldview
		of popular imagination.
	As much as I like Star Trek - and I do love Star Trek -
		that is an ideology of everlasting progress through human ingenuity.
I'm not talking about science as an idea, but science as a concrete community:
	trained, focused people with a common language and purpose.
For me, that means a very real group of astrobiologists
	and a very real group of evolutionary theorists.
Real people with real strengths - and weaknesses.
People with foibles, but people I have grown to know and love,
	who hold me accountable to our common ideals of knowledge.
 
Christianity can work the same way.
It need not.
It doesn't always, but it can.
Once again, it is not the self-congratulatory, triumphal worldview
		of popular imagination.
	As much as I want to share the good news,
		as much as I like the idea of Christendom -
a truly, pervasively Christian culture -
		as much as I romanticize the marriage of Church and State
			in the best Victorian novels,
	that is an ideology of how church should work.
I'm not talking about Christianity as an idea, but church as a concrete community:
	trained, focused people with a common language and purpose.
For me, that means a very real group of Anglicans
	and a very real group of ordained scientists.
Real people with real strengths - and weaknesses.
People with foibles, but people I have grown to know and love,
	who hold me accountable to our common ideals of knowledge.

If I'm wrong,
	I'd much rather find out about it now, than later.
	Later is always more embarrassing.
So, I like to poke at my beliefs from time to time,
	argue both sides,
	and convince myself that I'm right.
I value my scientific and religious communities.


A challenge arises when we come to evangelism and proselytization.
In my experience, people do not come to the church because they are wrong.
	What does it feel like to be wrong?
	It feels just like being right.
	Even if they are wrong, this approach simply will not work.
People come to the church because something in their lives feels empty or broken.
	Some relationship in their lives doesn't work,
		either with neighbors, with God, or even with themselves.
Our job with them is exactly the same as our job with one another,
	to be there.
 
Our job is to build the relationships of trust that form real community.
Our job is to create common language and common standards,
	that allow us to correct one another and be corrected.
It's daunting.
No, truly it's terrifying to allow someone in your life who can correct you.
It is not something we should do lightly.
But, it is something we should do,
because it's worth finding out.
Truth is worth the work.

Even more important, I think we must work to be the kinds of people,
	and the kinds of communities that people trust.
That requires discipline and self-restraint.
It requires asking more questions.
	Not just "is this true?"
	but "is it useful?"
	"Will it make sense to others?"
	"Is it kind and just?"
Because being right is about more than truth,
	it is about community, about faith, hope, and love.
This Lent, I hope you will find yourselves often wrong.
I wish for you a community of trust and purpose.
And may we all discover that we are a little less wrong
	than we used to be.

 

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Posted by: dacalu | 11 February 2018

The Glory of God

This morning, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst for the last Sunday in Epiphany – celebrating Transfiguration.  Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Prayer for the Day

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

2 Kings 2:1-12 (Elisha watches Elijah carried to heaven in a chariot of fire)

Psalm 50:1-6 (“Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.”)

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”)

Mark 9:2-9 (The Transfiguration)

 

Sermon


What should we do when we see God?
We have this person Jesus,
	beloved Son of God,
	God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
Jesus is both God and approachable.

And yet there are moments, rare moments, when we see the glory of God.
The Old Testament is somewhat ambivalent about this.
In places we hear that no-one can survive seeing God face to face.
	The fullness of God's glory is too much for us to handle.
Other passages suggest that Moses saw God face to face on Mount Sinai,
	and returned glowing so brightly he had to wear a veil.
Apparently, God is radioactive,
	and so are those who come too close to God's glory.

So, Jesus was something quite remarkable,
	both fully God and fully human.
Jesus is approachable.
And yet here we have this moment,
	this strange interlude on another mountaintop,
	when the glory of God is visible,
	in the face of Jesus.
For the first time, the disciples see Jesus in context,
	shining like the Sun,
	with Moses on one side and Elijah on the other.
Moses and Elijah, the two people
	who had seen God close up.
Moses and Elijah had power.
The context of Jesus is this intense power
	flowing from God into the world.


We face a strange dilemma as humans.
We want knowledge and power,
	but we resist learning and empowerment.
In the abstract, it sounds nice to know.
	In practice, it requires learning that we were wrong.
	Knowledge cannot be simply passed from one person to another.
	We must fight for it.
	We must seek out knowledge and find it.
	We must find a place within ourselves to keep it.
	And often that means replacing something else.
	Knowledge is hard.

In the abstract it sounds nice to have power.
	We want control over our surroundings, 
over our neighbors, 
over ourselves.
	We want our wills to work in the world
		and, we hope, to make it a better place.
	In practice, power comes from power.
	It is true in faith as it is in physics.
		Nothing comes from nothing.
	We cannot gain power without getting it from somewhere.
	We must encounter power in others,
		before we can have it ourselves.
	We must become empty,
		so that God's power can flow through us.

And so, we face this choice.
Do we seek out God, knowing that God will empower us?
	Or do we hide?

Elisha makes this incredibly brave choice 
when he follows his teacher
into the presence of God.
"Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!"
I'm not sure, but I think he's swearing.
How many of us have been brave enough 
to sit vigil with someone who is dying,
to walk with them to the very edge of life?
It is a profound experience.
It comes with knowledge and power.
Elisha walks to the very edge of life with his father and mentor,
	and watches God take him up.
Elisha makes this incredibly brave choice 
when he asks for a double share of Elijah's spirit.
 
To be filled with God's glory is a difficult thing.
The last line from today's epistle 
is just the beginning of an admonition about power and glory.
'For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," 
who has shone in our hearts 
to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God 
in the face of Jesus Christ.'
	It continues.
 'But we have this treasure in clay jars, 
so that it may be made clear 
that this extraordinary power belongs to God 
and does not come from us.'

To ask for knowledge
is to ask for a task in the world.
To ask for power
	is to ask for responsibility.
To ask for spirit and glory
	is to ask to represent God in the world.

Don't get me wrong,
	it is the best thing we can do with our time.
It is light and life and joy.
It is also trouble, with a capital T.
It means changing ourselves
	and changing others.
It means work.
 
And so we have this interlude.
On the last Sunday before Lent,
	we recall the glory of God,
	manifest in Jesus.
We recall our strange and wonderful ability 
to see God face to face in Jesus.
We recall the glory we are called to and the hope that is ours,
	that under the dirt and over the water and through the fire,
	the world is glorious.
God loves us:
	In Jesus,
	In water and wine,
	In wind and storm,
	In church and society.
God makes us glorious and wonderful and filled with light.

We are the ones that veil our faces.
We are the ones that shy away from the mountain.
We are the ones who refuse to look
	deeply into the face of God,
	shining from one another.

God wants more for us.

In Lent we prepare for the great unveiling,
	the vision of God,
	which we cannot yet bring ourselves to ask for,
	yet desperately need.

The church year gives us a signpost
"Transfiguration. No glory for the next 48 days."
	We will fast from Alleluias, take on disciplines, give up treats,
	all so that we can be closer to God.
All so that we will be ready to see him face to face,
	when he rises from the grave.


For now, take stock.
In the last few days before Ash Wednesday,
	I invite you to do the hard work of looking for God's glory.
Where do you see God breaking into the world?
Who's face shines with the radiance of grace?
And, perhaps most importantly, 
what can we do stop ourselves from covering it up?


It's easy to let glory pass us by.
It's easy to say that it was just emotion,
	or imagination,
	or a trick of the light.
It's easy to pretend that glory doesn't matter -
	the true glory of seeing someone face to face,
	the true glory of being seen,
	the glory of God.
It's easy to pretend that we only encounter God
	rarely, on the mountain top.

But the message of Christ is that the glory of God is everywhere.
It hides behind human faces.
It lurks in the wilderness.
It abides in the city.
It rests in our hearts.

There will come a time to share that glory.
There is a time to speak,
	indeed to sing about the love of God.
There is a time to shine forth,
	but first there is a time to see, 
	to look and listen,
	to hear the voice of God.

In the words of the psalm,
	"Be still, and know that I am God."
We want to know and do and change,
	but first this,
	this moment of contemplation.
We want to go forth,
	we want to fix,
	we want to make,
	but first this.

Close your eyes for a moment and listen.

(wait 30 seconds)
 
That is the Transfiguration:
	the still in the storm,
	the eternal now that precedes every future.
We do not need to wait for God;
	God already is.
We need to wait for ourselves.
We need to give ourselves a chance,
	to truly absorb the glory of God.

Posted by: dacalu | 18 January 2018

At the Border of Seen and Unseen

Last week, I was honored to preach for one of the Eucharists at the Society of Ordained Scientists‘ North American Retreat. This year, we met at Richmond Hill in Richmond, Virginia to talk about our calling as ordained scientists. That discussion was led by Bp. Nicholas Knisely.  I preached from a simple outline, but I’ve included the main points here.

Collect for the Society

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, source and foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness: Grant us in this Society and all who study the mysteries of your creation, grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings

Genesis 1:1-5 (The First Day)

Psalm 29 (“Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name”)

Acts 19:1-7 (The baptism of repentance)

Mark 1:4-11 (John baptizes Jesus)

Sermon

It can be hard to preach when you’re in the process of changing your mind.
Nick’s talks this week have me thinking and changing,
	but that’s part of what I wanted to say today, so it’s fitting.
I’d like to share with you two dualisms and a monism:
	that is two ways of dividing the world – 
neither of which I entirely agree with – 
and some thoughts about how to pull it all together.

We have a reading from Genesis about the First day,
	and that has me thinking about Philo,
	who may have been the first to suggest a dual creation.
The first day was, for him, a creation in light of ideal forms.
The other days, the material creation, began to work out the details
	of concrete physical things.
This dual creation inspired similar schemes in Augustine and Aquinas
	and eventually the familiar mind and matter of Descartes.
I think it also lies behind the line in the Nicene Creed about God
	creating all that is, seen and unseen,
	the invisible order and the visible stuff of creation.
I do not think there are two kinds of substances – mind and matter –
	but I do think we live at the boundary between the two.
I think we live at the intersection of the mental and the physical.
I also think that we, especially as ordained scientists,
	live at the boundary of the known and the unknown,
	the seen and the unseen.

Our readings from Acts and Mark also provide a dualism
	with two kinds of baptism:
		the baptism of John and baptism of Jesus,
		the baptism of water and the baptism of spirit,
		the baptism of repentance and the baptism of new life.
I’m not sure how best to interpret these passages
	and I don’t want to suggest that I have the best way,
	but I’d like to share my own thoughts on the two baptisms.
I see John’s baptism as reactive.
	It brings repentance and forgiveness.
	John’s baptism is all about turning away from what is evil.
But that is not enough.
It is not enough to turn away from the evil; 
we must turn toward the good.
We must orient ourselves in God and Christ.
Jesus’ baptism is proactive.
	It brings adoption and inspiration.
	It leads to growth.
It does more than save us from the evil;
it empowers us in the good.

The two can never be fully separated,
	but I think it’s useful, in both science and theology,
	to think about renewal in both ways.
We do more than falsify bad theories;
	in some mysterious way, we find good ones.
With C. S. Lewis, I think that there are infinitely more ways of being right
	than there are of being wrong.
When we focus too much on atonement, repentance, and salvation,
	we develop an anemic faith,
	one that can resist the bad,
	but cannot embrace the good,
	one that can deny the past,
	but not reach forward into the future.
Atonement, repentance, and salvation are crucially important;
	they are not the full end of baptism.
There must be more.
There must be a movement of the Holy Spirit in us.

And once again, we, particularly as ordained scientists,
	live at the boundary,
	where we are rejecting the bad, but also embracing the good,
	turning away from bad ways of looking at the world,
	but also promoting good ways.
Skepticism is not enough.


Some of you may be familiar with a book by Bill Countryman,
	Living on the Border of the Holy.
It speaks of our calling as Christians to live on the borderlands
	between the secular and the sacred,
	between life as we experience it and life fully in the presence of God.
We cannot cover the ground for people,
	nor can we act as an intermediary between them and God, 
	but we can be guides for others as they travel unfamiliar territory.
We can reorient them when they get lost,
	help them up when they stumble,
	and point out some areas where it’s easy to get bogged down
	or stopped altogether.

There is only one world,
	and all of us struggle to find our way in it.
Science and faith can be valuable tools for that, 
	when we use them rightly.
Ordained Scientists have a calling to help people in that process.


What do you do when you find yourself in sudden darkness?
	Call out?
	Light a match or turn on a flashlight?
In my mind, science is like a flashlight.
	It is this wonderful tool for dealing with darkness.
	We should always carry it with us and try it out.
And sometimes, a flashlight just doesn’t help.
	It shines over the edge of a cliff, or onto a black surface, or the battery runs out.
	Sometimes we need other tools and other strategies.
	We need to be prepared when our flashlight is not enough.
After all, sometimes the best response to the darkness
	is to let our eyes adjust.
And sometimes we can only lie down and sleep until the dawn.

The borderlands can be like that,
	the strange region between seen and unseen, visible and invisible, secular and holy.
They require patience and clear thinking and a variety of tools.
I think ordained scientists can help people use their flashlights,
	but I also think we are here to help people when the flashlight
		isn’t enough.
Science is narrow.
Faith must be broad enough to encompass the whole world.


I love God and I love the world that God has made.
This love keeps me looking.
It motivates my science and my theology as I try to understand,
	and nothing could stop me from my investigation.
Would you stop from following your beloved?

We know about relationships.
We know that they require both curiosity and commitment.
A relationship with curiosity but no commitment, cannot grow.
	It lacks the bonds that hold people together.
	It lacks the shared responsibility and care
		that make two people one.
A relationship with commitment, but no curiosity, grows brittle and frail.
	How can we say we truly love someone 
        when we no longer know who they are?
Our relationship with God and creation must be like this:
	committed to curiosity
	and curious about commitment.
We must be always looking and listening to hear.
We must be always responding and sharing what we have.

So, I would commend to you both curiosity and commitment,
	as you negotiate the borders of seen and unseen,
	and as you help others along the way.
Posted by: dacalu | 17 January 2018

Unapologetic Forgiveness

A friend of mine wrote to me recently asking about the concept of forgiveness.  Specifically, he wanted to know about whether we should forgive people who have not apologized.

For me this highlights a difference between several different things related to forgiveness: letting go of the offense, removing the consequences, and restoring the relationship.  All three are important, but I would defend the first as particularly important as a Christian virtue (and Jewish, Buddhist, and Taoist).

This first type of forgiveness, the unilateral willingness to let go of the offence is an important first step in the process of reconciliation. Equally important, it is essential to personal spiritual health, even when reconciliation is impossible.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a number of related concepts, and the words I use for them.

Forgiveness: the one-person act of a victim letting go of the offense. This requires naming what was done and accepting that it happened, then letting go of a personal need for balance, reparation, or punishment.  It does not mean that previous trust is restored. It does mean that the victim is willing to move forward.

The failure to forgive, whether active (holding a grudge) or passive (avoidance), keeps us bound to an event historically. It encourages us to think of ourselves as victims, our neighbors as offenders, and the world as antagonistic. It acts as an emotional and spiritual anchor by sucking up energy that could be devoted to curiosity and compassion.

Forgetting the offense is not forgiveness, but avoidance. It requires ignoring the motivations and circumstances of a neighbor. In a healthy, honest relationship we care about motivations and work to prevent the same circumstance from happening again.

True forgiveness never involves a restoration of trust without new awareness. That sets both people up for repeated failure. Instead, it’s important to accept the event and move forward with a deeper understanding of expectation, motivations, and weaknesses.

Repentance (Metanoia): the one-person act of an offender turning away from a wrong. This requires naming the act, accepting responsibility, and knowing that in the same circumstances it would not occur again. It requires a feeling of loss with a desire (if not always the ability) to make up for the offense in some way. It also requires some acknowledgment that trust has been broken and expectations are different.

Repentance always involves deep personal change. It means nothing unless our fundamental decision making process has shifted.  I try to use the word “sorry” only when I am repentant – when I have recognized a change I want to make in myself and have started the process of transformation.

In my book, Thinking Fair, I talk about “conversion” as this type of fundamental change.

Reconciliation: the two-person act of restoring trust which begins with both forgiveness and repentance. A sincere apology signals repentance and may be the beginning of reconciliation. It is only the beginning, however. True reconciliation incorporates the “offense” into a deeper mutual understanding.

A number of other words relate to forgiveness, without being quite the same thing. Amnesty and absolution involve the removal of formal consequences in civil and religious communities (respectively). Payment, reparation, and remittance refer to the restoration of balance.  When based on repentance, they can be great tools for reconciliation. When imposed, they can equally be used for avoidance or even revenge.

In the Bible, Jesus speaks of forgiveness as the unconditional, unilateral act of letting go. He forgives those who torture him and tells his disciples to forgive those who persecute them. There is nothing transactional in this, neither requirement or expectation of repentance. The act of forgiveness is good in itself; it frees the one who forgives. It also frees the forgiven, by promising the possibility of reconciliation.

I would end by saying that true forgiveness is no easier than true repentance. It reshapes the way we look at the world and makes us new people. Sometimes God gives us grace to make giant leaps – to forgive horrendous crimes or truly rethink our own choices. Most of the time, though it happens by tiny steps. It’s worth starting now, by letting go of the little annoyances of the day, so that in time we may work up to the kind of change that Jesus asks – and demonstrates.

Posted by: dacalu | 14 January 2018

Hope for God’s Word

Today, I had the privilege of worshiping with the people of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Virginia for the second Sunday of Epiphany.  Here is the sermon I shared. The audio recording can be found here under January 14, 2018.

 

Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Readings

1 Samuel 3:1-10-20 (God calls Samuel, “Here I am, Lord”)

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (“Lord, you have searched me out and known me”)

I Corinthians 6:12-20 (“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”)

John 1:43-51 (Jesus and Nathanael)

 

Sermon

We live in a time of great uncertainty.
	We are revising ourselves, day by day.
	Neither of the political parties stands for what it once did.
	The church seems to shift and change about us.
	Even health and medicine seem to have taken on new definitions.
It seems true for the oldest among us,
	but it is also true for the young.
I remember when Facebook was cool.
	Those of you who are not Millennials might think it still is.
	Sorry about that.
Cell phones caught on in the late 90s, smart phones in the late 2000s
Facebook was launched in 2004
	YouTube 2005, Twitter 2006, Instagram 2010	
	Amazon started in 1994 and Google in 1998
That’s seven different companies that changed our daily lives in the last 25 years.
Okay. I admit, I’ve never had much time for Twitter and Instagram,
	but they matter to teenagers,
	and we live at a time when the President’s tweets make the nightly news.
It’s not your imagination.
The world is changing.

We cannot stop the change, though sometimes we very much want to.
	Sometimes I wish things would slow down, 
just long enough for me to catch my breath.
Nor can any of us alone force the world to change in exactly the way we want.
	I use a phrase from Dr. Seuss: “If I ran the circus…”
	If I ran the circus, I have no doubt, I’d have everything put in order in no time.
	Well, not really.
	I know it’s more complicated than that,
		but there really are things I’d like to do differently.

I recall G. K. Chesterton, who said it this way.
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. 
The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes.
The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
I share this because I do not think that Christianity is inherently
	one or the other.
Christ does not call us to change for the sake of change.
Nor does he call us to resist for the sake of resistance.

He asks for something much more difficult.
He asks us to listen.

How do we listen amidst the chances and changes of life?
How do we learn to say
	“Here I am, Lord.”
	“Speak, for your servant is listening.”
	“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Today’s lessons are all about people who were open to the word of God
	and found themselves pulled into something unexpected.
For Samuel and Nathaniel, it was something wonderful;
	for Eli it was more complicated.
But all of them recognized that there was a relationship with God,
	that there was life and light and grace
	on the other side of the call.
God called and they answered.


This week, I have been particularly struck by the line
	that starts the reading from Samuel:
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”
My first thought was to say, “Ha!  Things have not changed so much.”
	The word of the Lord is still rare.
Then I went to a retreat.

This past week was the biennial retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists.
This past week we shared our personal stories of encountering the Truth,
	in the natural world and in the church.
We shared our personal stories of encountering Jesus.

I forget how often God speaks,
	because I am often reluctant to speak about it.
I do not share my story,
	and others do not share theirs.
I forget to say that God walked with me today,
	and I found peace.
I forget to talk about the wonder I feel 
whenever I see that exact shade of green that allows grass to photosynthesize.
For those of you who want to know,
	Chlorophyll absorbs blue and red light, 
so that the green reflect back to us.
I forget to say that I saw God in a friend’s eyes,
	as she told me a story about her life.

So, when I think about, I have to say that things are different now,
	different from the time of Samuel,
	because the word of the Lord is common.
Many of you,
	perhaps most of you,
	have a story of God speaking to you.
Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to raise your hands,
	but I hope you’ll give is some thought 
	and maybe be just a bit more willing to share your own tale,
	because I think we are blessed to hear it.

That is not to say that I think understanding God is easy.
	Rarely can I make sense of it by myself.
And that is, after all, another reason to share.
	I need you to help me make sense of it all.


I am an Ordained Scientist.
	In my case, that means that I am both a priest and an evolutionary biologist.
	In graduate school, I studied the mechanism and history of photosynthesis,
		light made manifest in the most concrete way imaginable.
	Later, I worked with NASA on the search for life beyond Earth.
		What would it take to convince us that we are not alone?
	Now I work on the history and meaning of “life” as a concept.
		How to we think about life: body, mind, and soul?
		I often joke that Jesus said he came to bring abundant life,
			but I don’t think he’s talking about moss.
		And yet, it is not unrelated.
		You and I find life and light in our concrete bodies,
			in bread and wine, water and oil,
			in caring for one another.
I study life and I have come to think that when read about life in the Bible,
	we must take the words more literally, and not less.
We ARE the Body of Christ.
	Our lives matter to one another.
	Our bodies matter to one another.
	We live out our faith in our tangible, physical bodies,
		just as God worked out our salvation in a tangible, physical body.
Our eyes and ears matter, our seeing and our hearing.
Our service to one another allows God to act in the world.
	It is not the only way God acts, but it is one way,
	and it is the way that I have some control over.
And so I say, “Here I am Lord.”

We cannot stop the change or force the change,
	but there is something we can do.
We can hope.

When we look into the storm of reality,
	the confusing mass of events,
	the strange motivations of our neighbors,
	indeed, even the strange movements of our own hearts,
	we can face it with hope or fear.
We can claim to know the goodness within our reach,
	clutch it too us, and insist that it must be the highest and the best.
We can harden our hearts to the will of God.
Or, we can listen for God in the wind and the fire and the earthquake;
	we can wait for the still small voice,
	we can hear God calling in the night and say, “Here I am, Lord.”

I truly believe that God always has something more to say to me.
I truly believe that God is speaking to me
	in the quiet of the night
	in the glorious creation
	and in the words of my neighbors.
I live life in joyful anticipation of what God has to say next.
“faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
	Our relationship with God is founded on this constant curiosity,
	this patient waiting
	with baited breath
	for the word of God
	working in the world.

I am madly, deeply, passionately in love with Jesus Christ.
	And so I hang around where he is and where he will be.
	I do the work I think he would do.
	I listen for his voice.
It is an embarrassing thing to be so in love,
	but I think that Christians must make fools of ourselves in exactly this way – 
	fools for Christ –
	because that is what we have to share.

“How deep I find your thoughts, O God!
how great is the sum of them!
If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.”

I am a scientist because God made world.
	I could and do lose myself in the wonder of it all,
	the subtlety and beauty, the constancy and variety.
I remember discovering in graduate school 
the fundamental interconnectedness of all living things.
Did you know that every ounce of life, 
from the smallest virus and bacterium
to the largest oak,
shares a genetic code and metabolism,
uses the same molecules in the same ways?
	Did you know that there are thousands of chemical pathways,
		which allow bacteria and archaebacteria to do things human
		can barely imagine?
	They tolerate heat and cold, and the emptiness of space.
	They survive nuclear radiation and toxic waste.
	They live by eating chlorofluorocarbons 
		and reduced iron compounds
		and natural gas.

This does not mean that all things we find will be good.
	I know of death and disease, pain and suffering.
With Paul, I say we must test everything and hold fast to what is good.
And still, I do test everything.
	Still I look and listen, 
	because I know that everything has not been revealed,
		even in my own life. 

I am a priest because Jesus said, “feed my sheep.”
Jesus calls us to hope for more than our own life, 
	but for the life of the community.
Jesus asks that we build, with our lives and labors,
	something greater than ourselves,
We lose ourselves in this common identity,
	the hands and feet, the loving heart of Christ.
We do not become less; we become more.

And all of this is possible, because we listen.
All of this is possible because we hope,
	that God is speaking to us,
	and continues to speak in our world, in our neighbors, in our very lives.
May we always be curious about what we do not know.
May we always be patient enough to let God finish a thought.
May we always have the strength to hope.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us 
is able to accomplish abundantly far more 
than all we can ask or imagine, 
to him be glory in the church 
and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. 
Amen.” 


Posted by: dacalu | 25 December 2017

Embarrassing Particularity

I spent Christmas morning with the wonderful folks at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle.  Here is my Christmas sermon.

 

Prayer for the Feast of the Nativity (Jesus’ Birth)

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Isaiah 52:7-10 (“all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”)

Psalm 98 (“Sing a new song to God”)

Hebrews 1:1-12 (“He is the reflection of God’s glory)

John 1:1-14 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”)

 

Sermon

Sometimes, it takes a personal touch.
Sometimes, you have to hear from someone who was there.
That is the primary mystery of Christianity,
	that Jesus Christ,
		God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
		is both the fundamental order in the universe
		and a tangible, historical person.
It is also the secondary mystery of Christianity,
	that you and I, in our frustrating humanness,
		are exactly what the world needs.

I don’t know about you, 
but I spend a ridiculous amount of time
wishing I was somebody else.
I wish I were a politician, with the skills for leadership,
	and making people understand each other,
	necessary to get us out of the political mess we find ourselves in.
I wish I were an entrepreneur and advertiser, 
with the skills for business
	that would allow me to help people and make money.
I wish I were called to be a full-time pastor,
	to take on a congregation,
	and grow the type of community
	that is central to the faith.

And this is all very funny,
	because I wish other people were different as well.
I wish that people were the type of voters who would choose me
	to be their politician.
I wish that people were the type of consumers who would choose
	whatever it is I’d be selling.
I wish that people were the type of Christians who would choose
	the kind of community I value.

All of those things are partly true.
I am – sort of – that kind of person.
Other people are – sort of – that kind of person as well,
but it all works so much better if we simply show up.

Jesus Christ gives me the courage to show up
	as I am, with the gifts I have,
	and say, here I am, Lord.
	What would you have me do?
The church gives me the courage to show up
	without expectations about other people,
	so that I can open my eyes
		to who they are,
		what they need,
		and what they have to offer.

Jesus does this in the incarnation.
I believe that Jesus did not know what would be asked of him.
We did not expect a child Messiah.
We did not expect a poor carpenter from Nazareth.
We did not expect a homeless martyr.
But that was what we needed.

Throughout scripture we get stories of the people we weren’t expecting:
	the bold adventurer Abraham and the con-man Jacob,
	the accountant Joseph and the murder Moses,
	the prostitute Rahab, 
	the overeager king Saul and the reluctant king David, 
	the somewhat dull Peter and the too smart Pharisee Paul,
	the contemplative Mary and the industrious Martha.
But they were each what we needed.
They were, each of them, an ambassador for God,
	when God reached out into the world.


God is everywhere.
God is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
God is the order behind the orderly universe,
	and the surprising change behind the mysterious universe.
God is the light, by which we see,
	but also, strangely, the primordial dark – 
	the canvas on which creation was painted.

Such a God is hard to wrap our heads around.
Indeed, we say that we cannot.
G.K. Chesterton put it well:
	“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. 
	It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. 
	And it is his head that splits.”
As Christians, we are accused of being unrealistic, illogical,
	and, at times we are,
	but the things most troubling to the world
	are our belief in the transcendent God,
		our belief in the immanent Jesus,
		and our believe that our daily lives matter
			in the grand scheme of the universe.
These are statements of which we should be most proud,
	the beliefs we must hold most dear.
For the world really is greater than we know.
	Humility and perspective demand that the world
		is greater than we can imagine,
		deeper and fuller and richer than reason and logic alone.
	This is not an excuse to ignore reason and logic.
	It is anything but an excuse to ignore the evidence and our senses.
	It means paying attention to the boundaries of reality and our grasp of it.
	When we know that God as Creator is
		as a statement about our limits 
		and not about our dogmatic certainty,
	God as Creator forms the core of our reason.
	God is transcendent, because we need a word 
		that captures something 
		more than “mystery” or “ineffability” or even “wonder.”
	Wilderness may be a good for it,
		or “mystery” in the Greek sense.
	God is not only transcendent, but the kind of 
		transcendence that has power over us.
	We confess that there is always a powerful, important “more.”
	In this, I truly believe that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”

As to the immanent Jesus,
	that is a harder claim, a difficult claim.
There is something embarrassing about committing to one person,
	out of the billions of humans in the history of earth.
There is something embarrassing about the particularity of Christ.
	We run the risk of being wrong.
Some of my friends would have me believe in an abstract Savior,
	or an even more abstract ethical principle or cosmic force.
These will not do.
We need Jesus because a concrete Savior has concrete consequences.
	He makes real, specific demands on our lives, our money, our priorities.

A concrete Savior means that we really are
	right or wrong about what he wants,
	right or wrong in our ethical choices,
	right or wrong about what we do with our lives.
More importantly, it means that we can discover the truth about these things.
If Christ is abstract, then we can argue ad nauseum;
	if Christ is concrete, we can ask him what to do,
	we can judge ourselves by the standard he sets.
I do not mean we can simply read the bible,
	or listen to a preacher,
	or follow a doctrine of the church.
Those things would be all in all if we were dealing with opinion.
A real, concrete Christ that communicates with us,
	means that we can always, must always,
	question the bible and the preacher and the church,
	and judge them by Christ Jesus, incarnate, distinct, real.

God is everywhere,
	but first God is here.
If I cannot convince you of that in this place – this sanctuary
	on this day, then there is no hope.
Because that is our mission, 
	to take God, encountered concretely here,
	in bread, wine, and one another,
	and take it out into the world.
We learn to recognize here,
	what we come to see everywhere.
We learn to speak here
	of a truth that must be true everywhere,
	or it cannot be true at all.

I want to be very careful.
Too often Christians have taken our truth
	to mean that other people must be false.
Too often Christians have taken our salvation
	to mean that other people must be lost.
If the concrete God were all there was,
	perhaps this would be true.
If we only had Jesus Christ of Nazareth, our concrete God,
	we would be safe in such exclusions.
That, however, is not the faith handed down to us.
	That is not the faith of our fathers and mothers.
	That is not the faith of the bible and the church.
	And, I cannot speak for you, but that is not the man Jesus I have met.

The concrete, specific Jesus came in the context of Yahweh,
	the God of Hosts, the Almighty, 
	the maker of heaven and earth,
	of all that is, seen and unseen.
Jesus called this God, “Father,”
	and John called Jesus, “the Word.”
	“He was in the beginning with God. 
		All things came into being through him, 
		and without him not one thing came into being. 
	What has come into being in him was life, 
		and the life was the light of all people.”
The paradox we face is that the immanent God,
	the tangible, historical God,
	is also the transcendent God,
		whose face we cannot gaze upon.
That God is at the very limit of what we can understand,
	what we can be.

It is a paradox,
	but I think it is a necessary paradox.
Philosophers have been struggling with it
	from the beginnings of recorded philosophy.
	Parmenides and Heraclitus.
	Or, if you prefer, “Tat Tvam Asi” from Chandogya Upanishad.
Life is interesting, because we transcend ourselves.
	We miraculously change, while staying the same.
	We become more than we are.

I am going to tell you that Christ is important,
	because he is both immanent and transcendent,
	truly God and truly with us.
I am going to tell you that you are important,
	Because you are embarrassingly particular.
Whoever you are, that is God’s gift to the world.
	You may be a gift, because of something beautiful you share with the world.
	You may be a gift, because of something tragic you overcome.
	You may be a gift, because of a hidden wholeness,
		that fulfills your community,
		or a visible emptiness that, 
by being filled, draws people together.

You may not know what your gift is, 
	but your neighbor does.
	Ask her.
	Ask God.
All of you are important.
All of you are necessary to the health of the world.
Otherwise you would not be here.


People ask me to be specific, so let me be specific.
Show up.
Show up for people when no-one else will.
	Show up for your friends and relatives in the hospital.
	If you have none, show up for someone else in the hospital.
	Show up for students and listen to teachers.
Show up for people on the streets asking for your attention.
	Yes, them.
You are scared of them because they might change your perspective.
	They are embarrassingly particular 
and they remind us that we, too, are embarrassingly particular.
They might approve or disapprove,
	teach or learn,
	heal or hurt.

You have God to bring with you –
the embarrassingly particular God of Christianity.
That God tells us that we are each,
	in our soul and our baptism,
		in our faith, hope, and love,
		a sacrament of the transcendent God,
		an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
That God tells us that 
physically breaking bread together,
	touching and washing one another, 
caring for the sick,
	and forgiving sins 
makes the world a better place,
	makes us better people.

I wish I knew how to say it better.
I wish I knew how to do it better,
	but I can only try and begin.
Risk your particularity.
Risk the particularity of your neighbors.
Risk the particularity of Christ.


“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; 
yet the world did not know him. 
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, 
he gave power to become children of God, 
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh 
or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, 
and we have seen his glory, 
the glory as of a father's only son, 
full of grace and truth.”

“Come, let us adore him.”
Posted by: dacalu | 18 December 2017

Being Saved

This week, I was with the wonderful people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst, celebrating the third Sunday in Advent. Here is the sermon I shared. (The sermon I mention from two weeks ago is here.)

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (“the Lord … has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed” AND “all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”)

Psalm 126 (“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (“test everything; hold fast to what is good”)

John 1:6-8,19-28 (John the Baptist)

Sermon

Two weeks ago, I spoke of the threefold God 
who was and is and is to come.
This week, I’d like to speak about our threefold response:
	assurance in the past,
	diligence in the present, and
	hope for the future.
It can be hard to keep all three in mind
	and yet,
	if I truly believe that God saves us
		in eternity and for eternity
	I must believe that Christ Jesus is redeeming us
	from horizon to horizon.
	No matter where I look, there he is,
		working to redeem the world.

When I was in college,
	I was troubled by the question, “Have you been saved?”
It’s an important question,
	though not really a great way to start a conversation.
I had never been worried about the fate of my soul,
	I did not know what to say to people who asked me.
There seemed to be a hubris in saying “yes, I have been saved?”
	and laziness in thinking I would not be involved in the process,
		from birth to death
How should I know if I am among the elect?
What should I say?
My parents provided a typical Anglican response.
Say this: “I have been saved, I am being saved, I hope for salvation.”

Our salvation,
	indeed our Savior,
	is not safely in the past.
He challenges us every day.
He calls us every day,
	to be more than we were the day before,
	to deeper faith, hope, and love.
Nor, I think, are we saved from some static, fixed enemy.
We struggle with pride and despair, self-promotion and self-destruction, sloth and frenzy.
Even Paul speaks of a thorn in his flesh, a constant challenge.
In today’s epistle, he says,
	“test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”

During the Reformation,
	there was great anxiety about who was in and who was out.
	Was Jesus’ action in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection enough,
		or do we need something else?
	Are sacraments necessary – rituals like Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation?
		And, if they are, does that mean the church can withhold them
			as a form of coercion?
	Is the Bible necessary?
		And, if it is, does that mean that salvation is impossible for those
			who have not read it,
			even if it was never translated into their language?
	Is the community necessary?
		And, if it is, does that mean we can get voted out?
Martin Luther, in particular, was anxious about his own salvation.
He wanted to reassure his followers that God was in charge
	and that Jesus had accomplished their salvation, fully.
But this creates a problem for Christians.
	If everything is already done, why then do we need 
sacraments, Bible, and community?
	What good to they do?

Anglicans replied with several nuanced responses.
First, we speak of justification and sanctification.
	God justified us, saving us from sin and death,
		but we participate in our own sanctification,
		moving toward greater holiness,
		by cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
	God saved us once, and for all,
		but we respond to that gift by joining God
in remaking the world.
Second, we speak of the middle way,
	neither Geneva nor Rome,
neither Protestant nor Catholic.
In the words of Richard Hooker,
	neither the Pope nor a paper pope
	(that is a tyrannical reading of scripture.)
Nor do we naively cut a path exactly halfway between the two.
Anglicans aim to weigh the authorities:
	using personal reason and conscience to check abuses by our leaders,
		but also relying on leaders to call us on our selfishness;
	using scripture to critique the tradition,
		but also relying on community and tradition to help us understand scripture;
	holding the fullness of Christian and Jewish history,
		so that we can mine it for wisdom
		from every time and place.

Third, we say “All may; some should; none must.”
	That phrase arose in response to personal confession.
	Do you have to confess to a priest alone and in person,
		as Catholics do,
		or can you, with Protestants, stick with the general confession
		we say during the service?
	“All may; some should; none must.”
	There is a difference between needing private confession for justification – 
		you don’t –
	and finding it helpful for sanctification –
		I do.
	I would recommend trying it every once in a while.
	It is a good way to be intentional about personal change.

I believe our salvation starts in the past –
	as all good things do.
I believe, with the leaders of the Reformation,
	that we cannot be bribed or threatened with salvation
	through churches or sacraments or doctrines or even the Bible.
	Salvation will always be in the hands of God.
But I also believe that God’s saving act continues into the present,
	whether you call it will or works or sanctification.
	I call it grace.

I can’t answer Rabbi Siegel’s questions.
“If the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
“If the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
I can say this.
	If the Messiah has come, what can I do to celebrate his life?
		What can I do to share the good news of his appearing?
	If the world is evil, what can I do to prepare a place for God?
		What can I do to care for those who have not met the Messiah?
If I must choose between responding to an abstract question
	and responding to a concrete need,
	let me answer the need.
I have been saved; I am being saved; I hope for my salvation.

I might go even a step further and say that I pray for my salvation.
	I work for my salvation and the salvation of the world.
I say this not because I believe in my own power.
	Truthfully, I think I have very little.
And yet, whatever power I do have,
	I will bend to the betterment of the world:
	sanctification, beautification, beatification,
	whatever you name it.
I want to make the world a better place.
And I know that God, working in me, can bring that about.

God is working now
	in me, in you, and in the church,
	to bring about a better world.
As a theologian, I could dive into the technicalities of 
	justification versus sanctification, forgiveness versus absolution,
	creation versus redemption, absolute versus ordered will…
	and on and on.
Those are good and worthy discussions.
	I don’t want to dismiss or discourage them.
I only want to say that God works in us and through us and with us in the present.
When we separate something called “salvation” from that ongoing process,
	we can forget about God’s action here and now,
	we can forget about our own place in the story.

The letters to the Romans and Galatians both say
	that we are more than slaves, more than servants to God.
	We are children and, if children, then heirs also.
There is a terrible responsibility in that.
Two weeks ago, I said we must always be on the lookout for Christ.

Now I say we have an obligation to always prepare a place for Christ,
	first in our own hearts and then in the world around us.
One line struck me from Isaiah this week:
“all who see them shall acknowledge 
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”
What might convince you that someone had been blessed by the Lord?
	Wealth, popularity, power?
	Charisma, wisdom, peace?

It’s an interesting question.
	This God who died on a cross to reconcile the whole world to himself,
	who promised his followers a peace that is no peace,
	who makes all things new – 
what would it take to convince you that someone was truly blessed by that Lord?
What would be proof of God’s grace in their lives?
And what would it mean to have a church that people could look at and say,
	God is visible there with them?

The church is like any organism.
It either continues to change and grow, dynamically,
	or it dies.
Animals breathe – as do plants, incidentally –
	always cycling air in and out, 
	inspiration and expiration,
	learning the new and leaving the old.
The church is the same.
There is a core, an essence.
	The holy spirit binds us together.
Animals and churches that change too quickly, end up failing.
	Hyperventilation is a bad thing.
	So is radiation.
	We cannot change for the sake of change alone.
Still the church has a metabolism:
	the daily, boring process of breathing in and out,
	eating, cycling materials, 
and, yes, taking out the trash.
There is nothing glamorous about it, but it must be done,
	because it is an integral part of God bringing about the salvation of the world.
Go to church on Sunday, greet your neighbors, participate in the sacraments,
	give money, give time to projects and committees, read the Bible.
And 
do work in the world. 
Too many people worry about giving food and money to the poor.
	If we cannot solve their poverty, why do anything at all?
	Won’t they end up dependent on our charity?
Good questions, but not the point.
	You may as well ask, why feed my body; it will just be hungry tomorrow.
Why pray for the sick if they don’t get better?
Why forgive people if they don’t change?
Why vote if government ends up corrupt, anyway?

For the record, 
I think that prayer does help the sick, 
forgiveness does create change,
and voting does improve the government,
but again:
that’s not the point.
Much of our faith is about metabolism and maintenance.
As children and heirs, we get the scut work of the family business.
There is nothing glamorous about it, but it must be done,
	because it is an integral part of God bringing about the salvation of the world.

So much for the past and the present.
Faith would be a tedious process, if this was all.
If we only saw salvation in old promises and tedious labor,
	there would be no good news.
Let me say this:
	I am not the Messiah.
	I am not the light, but I am here to testify to the light that is coming into the world.
	I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
You are too.

Turn your eyes to the future.
Imagine the world of Isaiah,
	where lion and the lamb lay down together
	where there is no suffering
	and the Messiah is with us, both day and night.
Imagine justice and peace.
Imagine the world of Paul,
	where each person knows the taste of goodness,
	swallowing the good and spitting out the bad.
Imagine inspiration and love.
Imagine the world of Christmas,
	when God arrives in humility,
	and binds us together in a single choir,
	with animals and angels, shepherds and kings,
	so that all the world sings with one voice.

This is a dream, but also a promise.
It is an aspiration, but also a program.
It is the hope that is in us as Christians.

My wish for you this Christmas,
	is that that light would be in your eyes,
	whenever you speak of Christ.
My wish for the church is that we might be known
	as the confident, diligent visionaries,
	who heard the call, do the work, and create the future.
It’s not easy, but it is joyous.
It’s not simple, but it is within reach.
It takes memory, reason, and skill,
	individual commitment and communal responsibility,
	knowledge and humility,
	patience and passion.
“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, 
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

We have been saved; We are being saved; We hope for our salvation.



 

Posted by: dacalu | 15 December 2017

Paradoxical Freedom

I love doors. Strange, but true. Have you ever taken a close look at the mechanism behind a swinging door? They’re wonderfully elegant: two plates, one screwed to the wall and the other screwed to the door, joined by a pin. Remove the pin and you can remove the door. Otherwise, it’s firmly attached and – here’s the exciting part – they open and close, like a movable wall.

When you get a chance, look at a door from the middle ages. Without machined parts, they don’t balance as well or swing as freely.

The door hinge is an example of technology so simple and refined that we no longer think of it as technology. We take it for granted.

A door hinge is also an example of paradoxical freedom. A door lying on the floor has no freedom. It can only sit there. You can move it with effort, but only by lifting the full weight of wood, or awkwardly scraping it along the ground. A door on a hinge moves back and forth, almost effortlessly.

I’ll bet you’ve opened and closed so many doors today you would have trouble counting them.

Human freedom operates the same way.

We’ve become accustomed, in our age of individualism, to thinking of attachments as something that limits freedom. Often, they are. We can be shackled financially and socially as well as physically. Literal shackles use similar pin technology and are one of humanity’s more abused inventions. Attachments can be vile.

And.

And some attachments bring greater freedom. A bungee jumper attaches herself to a bridge so she can jump off safely. A mountaineer attaches himself to a fellow climber and to the mountainside in case of a missed hold.

I spend most of my time connected. I like my communities, including the Episcopal Church and the United States Government because, by being attached, I have greater freedom. I can travel, knowing I have support. I can discuss and argue, knowing that others have agreed to some basic ground rules. I can depend on the basics of communication (language, roads, markets, …) so that I can go on to say and build what I want.

I want my autonomy. I like hinges whose pins I can remove and lines I can unclip. I’ll argue in church and government for the ability to opt in and opt out. Still, I spend most of my time connected.

I stay attached because it brings me greater freedom than being alone. Like a ship at anchor, sometimes I need something to hold me down when the winds of change blow too strongly.

[If you really like mechanical metaphors, check out helicopters, flybars, and gyroscopes. Sometimes the forces that need constraining are internal and subject to feedback loops and other complications. Constraints can save you from yourself as well.]

I’m not going to tell you which constraints are hinges and which are shackles. Each of us must figure that out on her own. In the case of church and state, I think we can all agree that there are aspects of both in each. But, give some thought to things that might be hinges in your life. What are they and how do they work?

And next time you open a door, find a little joy in paradoxical freedom.

Posted by: dacalu | 4 December 2017

Death, Resurrection, and Return

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. We celebrated the beginning of Advent – the season in the Christian calendar where we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas.  Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 64:1-9 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”)

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (“show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved“)

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (“He will also strengthen you to the end“)

Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Sermon

Near the end of the Eucharistic prayer, we include a “memorial acclamation,”
	that ties together our understanding of Jesus Christ,
	past, present, and future.
I’m betting you know the version from Prayer A:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The whole congregation says it together in Prayers A, B, and C.
Today, we’re using Prayer II, so I say,
	“Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, 
and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, 
who was and is and is to come, 
we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine,
	and ourselves, a living sacrifice.” (EOW)
It appears in every Episcopal Eucharist,
	and in most versions of Catholic and Orthodox Prayers as well.

The memorial acclamation reminds us of the constant tension we live in as Christians.
	We say that Christ died for us in the past:
		In the Reformation language of Rite I, we say:
		“All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, 
for that thou, of thy tender mercy, 
didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross 
for our redemption; 
who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, 
a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, 
for the sins of the whole world; 
and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, 
a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, 
until his coming again.” (BCP’79 p.334)
		Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli,
			leaders in the Protestant Reformation,
			all emphasized that our salvation has already been accomplished
				by God’s action.
	We say that Christ is risen in the present.
		He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
			speaks to us still through the Holy Spirit and Scripture,
			and intercedes for us eternally. (See Romans 8 and Hebrews 4-5.)
		This is why we can pray to Jesus now, in the moment.
		This is why we can speak of him as friend and king,
			and not just as an example or aspiration.
		Jesus is not dead, but alive…now.
		And so, we have hope that we, too,
			may live beyond the normal span of 80 years.

We say that Christ will come again in the future.
		“We believe that he will come again
			in glory to judge the living and the dead
			and his kingdom will have no end” (Nicene Creed)
		Though Christ has died, and though he is risen,
			the world does not seem to be saved.
			We do not feel saved
				from the chances and changes of life.
			We see the innocent suffer and the wicked triumph.
		Seymour Siegel, a Conservative Jewish Rabbi, put it this way.
	“The central problem of Christianity is:
if the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
	For Judaism, the problem is: 
if the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
		We look for something better.
		“We look for the resurrection of the dead,
			and the life of the world to come.” (Nicene Creed)
		“The creation waits with eager longing 
for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19)
		We want justice – though we fear judgment.
		We want consummation – though we fear completion.
		We want truth – though we fear revelation
			(not only the personal hand of God upon us,
			but also the great revealing of the end times).
		The words “apocalypse” and “revelation” both come from
			roots that mean a veil has been lifted and the true world seen.

And so, we live in this strange space of “already and not yet.”
The Kingdom of heaven is somehow 
already established, coming into being, and over the horizon.
That’s what’s at stake in today’s gospel.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: 
as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, 
you know that summer is near. 
So also, when you see these things taking place, 
you know that he is near, at the very gates. 
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away 
until all these things have taken place. 
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

We have been promised that the Kingdom is so close that we can touch it.

Does it feel close to you?
I hope so.
Some days it feels close to me,
	as close as my own heart and breath and life.
Some days it feels impossibly far away.
Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away,”
	and many of his followers, Paul likely among them,
	really believed that the end would come within 80 years.
It did not.
That was a challenge for them, as it is a challenge for us.
“If the Messiah has come, why is the world so evil? 
If the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come?”
I have tended to answer this question with ideas of eternity.
	It appeals to my Buddhist edges,
		or, if you prefer, my Cappadocian edges,
		for the foremost theologians of early Orthodox Christianity,
			Basil, Gregory, Macrina, and Gregory
		take same approach.
	God saves us outside of time,
		and we, in time, cannot grasp the fullness of God’s action,
		so, we place it in the past or in the future,
		but we must always reach for it in the present.
I still believe that, but today, I’d like to add a little texture.
I’d like to say why, for me, the memorial acclamation is so important.
Jesus reaches out to us through the past, through the present, AND through the future.
Jesus comforts us in what has been done,
	comes to us where we are,
	and calls us into something greater than ourselves.

The collect for the day asks for grace,
	“now
in the time of this mortal life 
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.”
For me, that means the particular grace
	of God in his human particularity
	reaching out to me in my particularity.
Mortal to mortal, flesh to flesh, humanity to humanity.
It does not deny something more.
	Christ has more.
	I aspire to more.
	And yet, here I am in my fleshy, mortal, humanity gazing into eternity,
		gazing into the face of Jesus,
		God incarnate.
Jesus gives us hope that eternity and salvation
	can be seen through visible, tangible, fleshy windows.
The now that surrounds us is not the only now.


So, let me ask you this.
Where are you looking for God to arrive?
	To what do you turn for hope, fulfillment, grace, and peace?
	Where do you look when you hope to be surprised,
		by a world more wonderful than you imagined,
		by power you didn’t know you had,
		by love deeper than you thought possible?
	Do you look to the past, the present, or the future?
	Do you look inside yourself?
		Inside other people?
		In nature?
	Do you look to wealth and power?
	Do you look to institutions, the church or the state?
	Do you look to community?

I can tell you where I look.
I look to faces.
	I look to the Face of God as Father, gazing at the Son.
		“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5)
	I look to the Face of God as Son, gazing at his friends.
		“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)
	I look to the Holy Spirit gazing through our faces at the Lord.
		“the Spirit helps us in our weakness; 
for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
And God, who searches the heart, 
knows what is the mind of the Spirit, 
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints 
according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)

I look in God’s face, reflected in nature.
	Just as the light of the sun bounces off objects 
and brings their forms to my eyes,
	so, the light of Christ bounces off spirits,
		the souls of humans,
		the livingness of every living breathing thing,
		and the hard surfaces of the rocks and minerals,
		and brings love to my heart.

I am a scientist because I think that science reveals the truth of the physical world,
	and I love the world as God’s creation.
I do not understand it fully.
I know in part because others have discovered the truth 
and shared it with me.
I know in part because I see with my own eyes.
I know in part because I am willing to let go of all my knowing
	and see again for the first time,
	every time.
	(Or at least some of the time. I’m still working on it.)
I am looking for the coming kingdom,
	as it was, as it is, as it will be.

Nor is my faith different.
It is rooted in the past,
	in what Christ as done for me,
	in what the church has found and what the church has looked for.
It grows in the present, 
in daily interactions with God
	through prayer, and community, and curiosity,
	which are, after all, shades of the same thing,
	the looking face to face
	and trying to see beyond my own expectations.
It reaches for the future,
	in my hope for redemption, salvation, resurrection, life, and grace.
	“Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility”
		and so, I believe, must we visit Christ,
		not resting on the past or present,
		but depending on that future time,
			that relationship that was, and is, and is coming to be.
	“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face. 
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, 
even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

I feel like a broken record,
	citing the same passages of scripture over and over again,
	but I keep finding the same message,
	“do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.” (Mark 4:9)
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; 
knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)
	“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; 
if you hear my voice and open the door, 
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
It’s not about humility before neighbor or church or doctrine.
It is humility before reality
	and the possibility of God breaking in
	everywhere.
It is about springtime,
	and the flowering of the fig tree.
The leaves do not suddenly spring from branches that remain unchanged.
The whole tree is transformed,
	the invisible metabolism changes the whole visible tree,
	so that water and chemicals flow,
	materials move from roots and trunk into the leaves,
	and reveal within the buds,
		the mysterious invisible process of winter and previous years,
		and the wonderful fruit which is not yet come.
I delight, living in the in-between.
There is so much past and future to celebrate.
There is so much now to revel in,
	if only our eyes, and hearts, and minds remain open.
Though Winter is upon us,
	Spring will come,
	and, eventually, Summer.
Though we feel barren,
	though God be invisible,
	though hope is hard to find,
God comes.
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”


I do not know where it is that you look,
	or even where you should look.
I know God gave each of us eyes,
So, I suspect we were meant to keep watch in different directions.
I can only say this: Keep awake!

This is the promise of Advent,
and the burden of Christianity:
to be always looking,
in every face, 
in every blade of grass,
in every event—past, present, and future—
for the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.


Posted by: dacalu | 16 October 2017

Joy in Truth

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of University Lutheran (UniLu) in Cambridge, MA at the conclusion of a weekend retreat on knowledge and belief.  You can find the text below and an audio version, here.

 

Readings

Isaiah 25:1-9 (“you have been a refuge to the poor”)

Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)

Philippians 4:1-9 (“Rejoice in the Lord always”)

Matthew 22:1-14 (The parable of the wedding banquet)

 

Sermon

Each of us carries a little model of the world around with us.
Each of us sees the world through glasses tinted by our own desires and experience.
Each of us, in turn believes we see the world better than anyone else.

And, all too often, we hide behind claims of factuality or revelation or being prophetic.

I am going to speak today about humility in our knowledge, 
	but I want to be very clear.
	I do not do this to deny the importance of truth.
	I do it to defend the truth,
		which is beyond our current understanding,
		and, more importantly, to defend joyfulness in truth.

When is the last time you took joy in the world – just as you found it?
When is the last time you took joy in discovering you were wrong?

One of my favorite poems, L’Envoi by Rudyard Kipling 
speaks of blessedness like this:
“But each for the joy of the working
And each in his separate star
	Shall draw the thing as he sees it
	For the master of things as they are.”

I believe that my picture of the world is partial, 
	but God’s picture is complete.
I believe that Jesus’ reality is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
I believe that we see now, as in a mirror darkly,
	but then, in the fullness of time,
	we will see face to face.

And so, I delight in disagreement
	when it is honest,
	because seeing you paint the world
		helps me to see it more clearly.
	Seeing your world, helps me to realize that the real world,
		the deeper, fuller, more glorious reality
		is God’s world, rather than mine or yours.

This weekend, I have been speaking on knowledge and belief.
I have encouraged the group to think about 
	why we think the things we do,
	how the world shapes our thoughts,
	and how our thoughts shape us.


If you are like me,
	the worlds seem broken right now.
It feels impossible to understand the way our neighbors think.
In just the last few days, 
I have had some strong debates
on gun control, free speech, the beginning of human life, 
evolution, and sexuality.
Nice relaxing week, right.
I won’t claim they were easy, 
	but I can give thanks
	that people who disagree with me –
	on some fairly fundamental points –
	were willing to engage.
I give thanks because they remind me that the world,
	the real world,
	is bigger than the world I carry in my head.
Because, honestly, I cannot grasp the resurrection.
	I cannot understand the reconciliation and harmony
		of God’s promised world.
	I cannot wrap my head around the fullness of forgiveness.
But, when my eyes are open,
	the world surprises me
	with gifts that defy words.
The world is more wonderful, and more forgiving,
	and more hopeful, than my petty brain and imagination
	could render.
God’s world filled with things both strange and wonderful.
	And people, both strange and wonderful.
I find joy in that truth.

One line from Isaiah really stood out for me this week.
Isaiah speaks of “A Palace of Aliens.”
	A rather colorful phrase – good for a science fiction novel –
		but I think it also speaks to our current discomfort.
	I feel as though my house has been taken over by aliens,
		by people whose goals and motivations I cannot understand,
		but who seem bent on making me feel unwelcome.
	Worse yet, the house is beginning to feel like it was set up for them and not for me.
		They have become comfortable – at my expense.
	It is a palace of aliens and I am an exile here.
Raise your hand if you’ve had this feeling,
	in your country or university or job or even on this planet Earth.
Raise your hand if you know what it feels like to be in a Palace of Aliens.

I know progressives who feel this way about the US Government.
And, I know conservatives who feel this way about US Culture.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you will jump immediately
	to say something like this.
	“But one of those is injustice and the other just common sense.”
	“One of those is about ideology and the other about compassion.”
	“One of those is good and the other is bad.”

That may be true, but it is not enough.
It is not enough, because it is not my house or their house.
	It is God’s house,
	and all of us are guests.
We need to figure out God’s rules.
And we need to correct one another only as one guest corrects another,
	with sympathy and humility,
	lest our host feel we have disrespected the house.
It’s an awkward place to be.
In our society, as conditioned as we are by law and facts and ownership,
	we want to be the authority.
	We want to be the host or the steward or the enforcer.
	But in this life, we are guests.

God promises that the Palace of Aliens will be destroyed,
	that we will find ourselves at home,
	but we will be neither more at home
		or less at home
		than our companions.
We may even have a part to play in the process.
We may be called to make others feel at home in the world.


The parable of the wedding banquet
	has never rested easily with me.
I am troubled by God seeming to be a tyrant,
	burning down cities and casting out guests – 
	perhaps even guests that found themselves there quite unexpectedly.
This week I’m trying out a new interpretation,
	one based on the Palace of Aliens.
I hope you’ll find it interesting and try it out as well.
I hope you’ll help me figure out if it works,
	because I know I can’t figure it out alone.
Sound good?

I suspect that the wedding banquet is God’s world,
	the deeper, fuller, more glorious reality
	that waits just beyond our feeble sight
	and just beyond our tentative fingers.
I believe God reaches out to us,
	in uncomfortable discussions,
	inconvenient truths,
	and in love for our enemies.
God invites us to leave our palaces and come.
God asks that we question ourselves and our truths,
	so that we might find something better.

And we make light of the invitation, ignoring it and going about our business.
We pass by the beggar on the street instead of starting a conversation.
We avoid our friends and co-workers when they talk about things that trouble us.
We conveniently read the parts of the Bible we like
	and skip over the boring bits, 
or the scandalous bits, 
or the truly weird stuff in the back.
(You know what I’m talking about.)
And so we miss the opportunity to come to the banquet.

Or perhaps we blame the messenger,
	lashing out at those who tell us about things we don’t want to hear.
We even blame ourselves sometimes,
	cursing our bodies or our minds for being other than we want them to be.
That can be the worst kind of violence against truth.	

I think God visits us with our just desserts.
You can only ignore reality so long, before reality comes to find you.
You can only put the truth off for so long before the truth catches up with you.

Those who will not come to the banquet, find themselves left out, in the cold,
	where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It’s not a punishment, but it is what happens.
We suffer when we hide from reality.

So far, so good.
I think most Christians – even most people – would agree with me.
Philip K. Dick, who dreamed up Blade Runner, put it this way:
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

The next part is harder, because we are not the vicious lords and ladies
	who would not come to the wedding.
We are the clueless beggars, dragged in off the streets.
We have been, and are, much to our surprise, brought face to face with Jesus,
	the way, the truth, and the light.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not here because it is comfortable,
	or easy, or convenient to be a Christian.
I’m here because Jesus showed up and dragged me along.
I have to admit, it was better than what I had planned.

God doesn’t just ask us to be here.
God asks that we be here for one another,
	that we take joy in one another,
	delight in discovery,
	even appreciate the arguments.
God asks us to show up for the banquet
	ready to party
	and ready to help one another take joy in the truth.
Because the truth is amazing.

Reality is wonderful.

Did you know that slime molds can solve math problems?
Or that the planet Uranus spins on its side?

Did you know that there are bacteria that live in boiling water?
	(Don’t worry, they’re not the infectious kind.)
Or that we have already discovered over 3,600 planets orbiting other stars?
And that’s just science!

Sitting around you in the pews there are scads of people,
	each of whom has a world of her own,
	a treasure chest of peculiarities and insights,
	experience and perspective.
Some of them even have a sense of humor.

Did you know laughing with other can make you happier and healthier?

Beyond those doors there are countless more people,
	countless more worlds to explore.
Some of them are strange.
Some are frightening or awesome or alien.
Some – most honestly – are windows into the Divine.

We should be just as excited visiting these worlds
	as we would be to travel to a new planet,
	no matter how dangerous,
	because discovery is a joyful thing.

I don’t underestimate the dangers.
	I know that space is hazardous.
	There are sharp toothed, acid dripping, horrendous aliens out there.
Still, it’s worth it.
There is a banquet of new experiences that will stretch you
	until you are more glorious than you thought you could be.
There is more grace in an alien smile,
	than in a room full of mirrors.
And some of the snarling, menacing, hulking brutes,
	are just waiting for their morning coffee.


People, when you stop believing in them, don’t go away;
	they only become more alien.
That’s why I try so hard to keep believing in people.
That’s why I hope they keep believing in me.

In the past 72 hours, I have found myself quoting
	Philip K. Dick, Jerry Garcia, and Richard Dawkins,
	all undoubtedly geniuses, but not folks I find a lot of common ground with.
	And yet they said interesting things,
		fascinating things,
		useful things that were worth sharing.
	Even Rudyard Kipling, whose work I quite like,
		had some very problematic opinions.
The first step is that readiness to hear truth,
	no matter how unlikely the source.

I won’t tell you it’s easy, showing up in a wedding robe every second of every day.
I won’t say it’s easy to truly listen,
	but it is worthwhile.
Indeed, the older I get the more I think it is the most worthwhile thing in the world,
	to really listen to reality, 
to really listen to one another,

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