"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sheep and death

This Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday and it was my turn to preach.  As I read the lessons this week though, all I could come up with was sheep and death. I probably should have been trying to develop some really insightful theme that was deep and edifying, but instead I just kept thinking about the time when I considered becoming a sheep farmer.  I used to own a farm in upstate New York and there was a perfect 8 or 10 acre pasture that wasn't being used much that I thought would be ideal for a small flock of sheep.  I even bought a book (this was before google and wikipedia and all that) called Raising Sheep the Modern Way.

It took a little digging but I unearthed my copy this week and starting skimming through it which caused two reactions for me.  The first was that it made me kind of want to be a sheep farmer again, but the second was to cause me to reconsider the line from John's Gospel we read this morning where Jesus says; "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep."  Because as I read through the book I was reminded of how seemingly fraught with peril is the life of a sheep.  The book describes all sorts of parasites and illnesses which can kill a sheep, and the dangers of lambing and how to respond; it has loads (really, loads) of info on fences, fences to keep sheep in and predators out.  It even has a section on sheep dogs.  But it didn't have anything in there about laying down your life.

Set aside for a minute that this is Jesus talking; do we really believe that a good shepherd would die for a bunch of sheep?  Many people say they would give their life for their children, and some people may think they're willing to die for an ideal or a cause - but sheep? That's not how our world works. We're sheep-like enough, our primary concerns are a full belly and keeping the wolves at bay, but unlike sheep (probably) many of us are willing enough to do so at the expense of others. Even the most conscientious of us cannot escape the fact that all of our actions involve some kind of compromise with systems that perpetuate injustice.

Several years ago, after a Good Friday service, a friend said to me; "I just don't understand why he had to die." Many people have built entire theological careers on trying to answer that question. But in the end I think it might boil down to this. Jesus died because God believes in a world where good shepherds lay down their lives for sheep, and we don't.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


I know we're well into Easter, but I'm still thinking about Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Good Friday) and what Jesus means when at the last supper he presents the bread and wine as his body and blood and says that whenever we eat and drink these we should do so in remembrance of him.

Earlier that day, my 3 year old daughter's new big-girl bed arrived and part of getting it into her room was taking apart the bed she was using which had originally been her crib.  As I took it apart, my mind was filled witht he images of Nikki and I picking it out at the store, and decorating Zella's room before she was born, picking out bedding and the mobile and getting the sleep sheep from Cathy at church and bringing Zella home and learning how to get a baby to sleep and... an d well all the stuff that goes with having a baby and I was struck by how much of my relationship with Zella was tied up in this bed that I was dismantling to put in the basement.  And I was struck by how funny our memory is.  It's like I couldn't begin to describe how my Grandma White smelled, but on at least two occasions I've encountered that scent and powerful memories, full of emotion and longing sprang forth.

So in the Maundy Thursday scripture readings we encounter instances of God's command to remember.  To remember what God has done for his people enslaved in Egypt and what God is doing in the person of Jesus on the night before his death. "Do this in the remembrance of me," God says.  But it seems to me that this remembrance to which we are called isn't just a recalling of the past, but an invitation to live out what God has done for God's people again today.  God's saving actions aren't mere historical events but the indelible pattern of life, of our life and of life always and everywhere.  We remember what God has done in order to open our eyes to what God is doing.

We are the people being set free from slavery, we are the people witnessing God’s saving arm; God’s grace on our behalf.  In this remembrance God, Father, Son and Spirit are real and present among us and within us.  When we kneel at the communion rail, and partake of the body and blood, we are sitting around the table in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem with our Lord and Teacher.  Jesus isn’t confined to a piece of bread or a sip of wine but is wholly real and fully present in the community gathered in remembrance of God’s acts in the past, in the present and in the future.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

what is Caesar's?

I heard on the radio yesterday that the Defense Department is investigating the actions some US military members in the ever-expanding Cartagena prostitution scandal which originated with the actions of some Secret Service agents in advance of a visit to Colombia by President Obama.  Also in the news recently were photos of US soldiers being, to put in charitably, disrespectful of dead Afghan fighters which they had recently killed.  Many voices are expressing a concern about the degradation of American morals or virtue or some such thing exhibited in these episodes.  I share their concern and dismay.  However, I do not think these incidents are indicative of any kind of social decline.  Rather, I am of the opinion that people are remarkably consistent across time and humans today are, by and large, no more virtuous or callous from age to age than they might be at any given point in time.  In the Christian concept, this is what might be construed as the sinfulness of humanity.  In a non-Christian context, perhaps it would be called something like biological determinism.

Now I wouldn't go so far as Calvin's notion of the Total Depravity of humanity.  I do believe that all of the created universe, including people, contains something inherently good that is reflective of the God who lies behind our existence.  That said though, there does certainly seem to be something deep within our beings which causes us to create and re-create over and over again unjust relationships and systems.  I think that an important part of being a faithful person is the need to continually examine our relationship and participation in the human-created systems that define our world.  I'm pretty sure that's what Jesus was on about in his answer to the question about paying taxes; "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."  The bigger question for us is; what isn't God's?

So, people continually do bad things because that seems to be at least a part of who we are as humans.  Christ's call to love our neighbors as ourselves is an invitation to turn our narcissism and selfishness on its head; an invitation to put ourselves last.  We need to be mindful of the ways we participate in Caesar's world, the ways in which we put our comforts ahead of justice.  I'm not suggesting we all run off to live in communes - we aren't turning the clock back to be hunter-gatherers.  But it might be helpful to recall that in Genesis, all of the arts of civilization are the fruit of the children of Cain, who was cursed for murdering his brother.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ask A Christian!

A favorite blog (newspaper column really) of mine is ¡Ask a Mexican! which manages to be both funny and insightful. Imagined as a place where people could ask the kind of boneheadedly ignorant questions they would never ask a real live person; its real genius is the way that it subverts prejudice by taking it at face value and responding with truth and humor. Only someone really self-confident in their identity, but also someone who didn't take themselves too seriously could have pulled this off for as long as ¡Ask a Mexican! has been around.

It strikes me that much of Christianity, and especially the strain of Christianity which includes the Episcopal Church, is sadly lacking in such confidence (though I will offer the counter-example of Lent Madness, which seems to embody the same kind of cheeky confidence). So much energy in the Episcopal Church, as well as the wider Anglican Communion, is taken up with deadly earnest, woe-is-me, handwringing. But too many people think that answer to the larger cultural shifts away from religion generally is to abandon everything that makes Christianity, well… Christian. Hospitality isn't about removing the markers of community; it's about explaining the markers and walking with people as they navigate their way through them. We won't bring people along with us if we keep telling them that there is nothing distinctive about Christianity. To do so is to suggest that there is nothing worthwhile about our so-called faith life.

I suspect that the underlying reason is just that lack of confidence within the Church about the claims which Christianity makes. Jesus wasn't just a really swell guy with some good ideas, he is the Son of God, fully human, fully divine whose life is our best understanding of the nature of God, and whose death and resurrection is sure promise of God's redemptive power. If you're going to claim a Christian identity, especially if you're someone who occupies a position of authority, then for heaven's sake take it seriously!

Now to go finish that sermon for Maundy Thursday….