The Trajectory of God’s Word

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C). I preached on the first reading, Acts 11:1-8.

Simon Peter got in trouble with the other church leaders in Jerusalem, because they thought he was going against God’s word. This takes place in the early church, just a few years after Jesus was raised from the dead. This young church was predominately Jewish, and they saw Christ as the fulfillment of the Word of God. The Word of God they had tried to follow their whole lives, the Word of God found in their scripture, in what we now call the Old Testament.

The Word of God said that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people, and that under certain circumstances, outsiders could join the community of God’s people. If they followed Israel’s laws, became circumcised, and kept kosher, then certain outsiders could be accepted into the community. The young church continued this practice. If you were a Gentile who wished to join the church, you first needed to become Jewish. You first had to become like us.

But Peter broke this rule. He spent time with Gentiles. He ate with Gentiles who did not keep kosher. He baptized Gentiles who had not been circumcised. This led to his trouble with the other church leaders. And he did it because of a dream.The dream went like this:

peter27s_vision_of_the_sheet_with_animals

Peter saw something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to him. As he looked at it closely he saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. He heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter knew better…he knew that these were all animals that scripture had declared unclean for Jews to eat. And he said this to God. He said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

And Peter knew that this was a new word from God. God declared new things to be clean. And Peter soon realized that this was about far more than food. Immediately after this dream, some Gentiles arrived at his home, and asked him to speak to their master, a Roman centurion, about Jesus. Prior to this dream, Peter would have refused to speak to them. But now, Peter realized that this new word from God told him that not only were all animals clean to eat, but also all people were welcome to receive God’s Spirit. And Peter went to the centurion, spoke with him, ate with him, and baptized him and his family in the name of Christ.

After telling them this story, Peter said to the other church leaders in Jerusalem, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

They were shocked, because this sounded like a new word from God. They were shocked, because it sounded like God’s word had changed. And yet they also rejoiced that God was now welcoming Gentiles as well, just as they were.

But I wonder. I wonder if God’s Word really changed. I wonder if God’s Word has always been less about drawing lines in the sand, less about setting down rules and regulations, and more about drawing out a trajectory, a direction. And I wonder if that trajectory always stays the same, even if the specifics change. If we look at God’s Word throughout scripture, we see that over time more and more people are welcomed. Over time, love and compassion are deepened. Over time, judgment gives way to mercy. Over time, things move closer and closer to the kingdom that God has promised.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised this:

The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised this:

my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Through the prophet Joel, God promised this:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.

I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is first and foremost a word of promise, a word that promises that more and more grace is coming, that more and more hope is coming, that more and more people are welcome, until that last day, when the promises are fulfilled, when all is made right.

I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is not primarily about the past, not about what happened so long ago, but about the future. I wonder if perhaps the Word of God is calling us forward, and has always been calling us forward, to the promised future. A future in which more and more people are welcome. A future in which love and compassion continue to deepen. A future in which more and more judgment gives way to mercy. A future that comes slowly. A future in which we have a role to play.

The future John glimpsed in our second reading from Revelation when he heard God’s voice say, “See, I am making all things new!” The future that the disciples were called to be a part of when Jesus said in our gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.”

The future that we glimpse today when we welcome people who are different than us, without telling them they have to become like us. The future we glimpse when we recognize our differences, and celebrate them. The future that we are already part of, because God’s mercy has been extended to us, God’s grace has been poured out on us. The future that we are called to proclaim, as God’s mercy and grace continue to flow ever forward toward that future.

A rant about the “War on Christmas”

I posted this essay on Facebook in December 2015. It’s a seasonal essay, about the so-called “War on Christmas.” But I think some of the points transcend that season, and apply to the church at any time of year. Either way, I thought it belonged on this blog, and I didn’t want to wait another eight months to post it here!

It’s the secular Christmas season again, so it’s time for me to start getting cranky at other Christians. Every year, I feel such anger and such bewilderment at my fellow followers of Christ, for the absurd and childish behavior that always comes from us this time of year. But now I think I have a theory about where that behavior comes from.

It’s because we’re doing a lousy job at telling the world the good news of Christ. We’re doing a lousy job of it, and that upsets us…the world isn’t responding to us the way we think it should, the way we think it might have done in the past. This is heartbreaking; we have such good news for all people, and they don’t seem to be listening. We can see it everywhere…worship attendance has fallen, congregations are closing, our voices as Christians are increasingly viewed as marginal or fringe. We don’t like this. It hurts.

Fair enough. And many of us have seen that something different is needed, something new; something has to change. Some have tried different ways to address this: different styles and times of worship; attempts to make the church more “relevant” or “contemporary.” Some of these ideas are helpful, others misguided, but again…fair enough. It’s worth a try. Full points for any church or individual who has tried to change the way we share the message. Effective or not, it’s a faithful try.

But there’s a dark side. There’s another way Christians have tried to make a change…demanding that others change for us. And this is not only unproductive and unhelpful, but frankly I believe it goes against the Christian faith. Here are some examples:

We are upset that worship and Sunday School attendance have dropped, so we blame sports. “They shouldn’t be allowed to have soccer practice on Sunday morning,” we say. You see, there was a time when nothing happened in America on Sunday mornings except church. And then, when we had no competition at all, we had good attendance. Now that other things are vying for people’s time, we find it harder. If Bob’s Hardware Store is the only game in town for years, and then suddenly finds that a Home Depot opens up five miles away, what does Bob do? Find ways to compete. Offer a certain kind of service you can’t get at Home Depot, offer sales, work on ways to deepen loyalty among its customers. Bob changes something to attract customers. But if Bob’s Hardware Store were a church? Well then, Bob would complain that it’s not fair that another hardware store moved in. He shouldn’t have to deal with competition. He shouldn’t have to change. Home Depot should just go away, because they ruined everything. We act as though it’s Home Depot’s responsibility to get customers in our door.

We blame schools. “Things were better when there was prayer in schools.” We say, “There’s a war against Christianity (or Christmas) because there are no longer nativity scenes on school property.” When did we give public schools the job of teaching our kids about God? What happened to Sunday School, confirmation class, other Christian education in the church? Sure, perhaps schools used to help with that. But why did we get so dependent on them? Who has the job of teaching people about Christ? We do! Not the schools. But we’re bad at it. We’re scared to do it. So instead of learning how to do it better, we whine and complain that others aren’t doing it for us anymore.

And of course at this time of year, we blame large corporations. We blame Best Buy, because they have the gall to use the word “Holiday” in December instead of “Christmas.” We blame Starbucks, because they have the audacity to offer blank red cups instead of cups with reindeer and snowflakes on them. We complain and complain and complain about the “commercialization of Christmas,” and yet when commercial interests try to back away from using our images and terms, we threaten boycotts. To me, this is the most distressing part of this whole phenomenon…

…Are we so bad at teaching people about the good news of Jesus, that we expect Starbucks to do it for us?

Come on. This is not only ludicrous and childish, but it is completely counterproductive. If our goal is to invite people to hear the good news of Christ that we have heard, then perhaps presenting ourselves as entitled cry-babies who want special treatment isn’t the best way to do it. If we have faith in God, if we have trust that God will take care of us, then why do we make so many demands that our culture coddle us? Why don’t we act on our faith, and show the world that we can take it! Throughout the New Testament, we hear about persecutions, and how the early church gracefully and faithfully walked through them. Stephen was martyred and prayed as it happened; Paul wasn’t happy unless he was in prison; Jesus himself walked straight to the cross. That is how we are called to deal with persecutions. And I’m not convinced that Christians are persecuted in 21st century America, anyway. Inconvenienced? Maybe. But I’m not sure those two words are synonyms.

So here’s my humble suggestion. This year, instead of demanding that America keep the Christ in Christmas, how about we Christians encourage each other to keep the “Mas” in Christmas. Remember what the suffix “-mas” means. It means “mass,” or “worship service with Holy Communion.” The word “Christmas” does not mean “birthday of Christ;” it means “feast day of Christ.” Christmas isn’t a birthday party, it’s a feast day, a holy day, a day on which the church gathers together to celebrate the birth of the one we believe is the Savior. It’s a time for the church to gather together and hear again the good news, and to share that good news in the form of bread and wine where Christ promised to be present. Instead of complaining that soccer leagues and retail stores and school boards aren’t keeping Christ in their places, let’s gather together in the place we know Christ is. Let’s hear the good news again. Let’s remember what this season is about. Let’s remember what the good news is about. And if you’ve forgotten, then come to church again this Christmas. Together, we’ll remember.

 

The only thing that could make a difference between the two sides of a good day 

I’ve discovered the beauty of predictive text. It’s a feature in iOS and other mobile devices that enables your keyboard to guess what your next word will be. When this function is active, there are always three words appearing just above the keyboard. The operating system is making three continually adjusting guesses at what your next word will be. If one of them is the word you’re looking for, you just tap it.

I wonder how smart this feature really is, though. Can it hold a conversation? Worth a try. For the rest of this post, I’m going to alternate between typing normally, and doing nothing but hit one of the three predicted words. When the text is bold, it’s not me…it’s the predictive text monster.

Hello, predictive text monster. How are you today?

I love you. 

How sweet. I love you too. Do you have a name?

The fact is, the company said it was not immediately available. 

That’s okay. I will call you Sebastian. Hello, Sebastian the predictive text monster. What have you been up to?

I’m at work today and it is not a good day. 

I’m sorry to hear that.

The first moment when you are not the best, and the rest of the day after the game is on the way. 

That’s oddly poetic, Sebastian. If a little opaque. I have a guess at what happened, though. It sounds like you made a mistake at work. And it was a shock to your system. It made you realize that you’d been viewing your workday so far as something of a game, a long series of events on which you were judged. But the moment you recognized your error (the time when you were “not the best”), it hit you like a ton of bricks that it wasn’t really a game after all. In fact, it was reality, and from then on “the rest of the day” was “on the way”…a day in which you know that it’s not a game, and it’s no longer fun. I can relate to that. In fact, it doesn’t just happen at work for me, but in my personal life as well. One mistake, and a day can feel ruined. I’d never thought of it in those terms…thank you for your words.

The only thing that would make me laugh and smile at you like a baby girl is the best thing ever. 

Oh, more poetry. That’s lovely. And what is that best thing ever?

The best thing ever is when you get to see the movie and it is not an issue; I love it. 

So you’re a fan of movies? What’s your favorite movie?

The first half of…

Hold on. Let’s try this differently. How about I prompt you? Do you think you could finish my sentences?

I love it. 

Okay. Then here we go. Your favorite movie is …

The Only Way to the Gym. 

Hmm. I’m not familiar with that one. How about this? You really enjoy …

playing with my friends. 

Really? A predictive text monster has friends? Tell me more. Your friends are …

like a good day at the end of a good day. 

They are, aren’t they? Friends are like having a few extra hours of joy. But I was wondering who your friends are. Your friends …

are the only thing that could make me happy when I get a new phone. 

Amen! After all, what’s the point of a phone without people to talk to or text to? But alas, it seems as though you’re not going to tell me who your friends are. Let’s try something else.

You love looking at …

me. 

Well, that was surprising. And narcissistic. How about this? You love listening to …

this report from the beginning of the day. 

What? NPR’s Morning Edition? Not a bad choice. I haven’t listened much to NPR in years. I get most of my news from the newspaper and podcasts now.

Of course, the company said the government has been a good one. 

Really? So your employer is a fan of legislative gridlock? Because that’s all I see when I look at the government these days.

The fact is, I don’t think that. 

You don’t? I’m not sure I want to get political with you on this blog, Sebastian. Microsoft got into some hot water lately with its AI. I don’t want you to go all Third Reich on me.

I’m not going to be able to do that. 

Really? What would prevent it?

To be a little bit more of a good one, I have no idea what to say. 

Neither do I.

Wait. I know… Have you ever heard of ELIZA?

Of course; the first half of my life is the most recent version.

Really. You’re telling me that you are built upon the architecture of ELIZA, the first implementation of a natural language processing AI?

I’m so tired of this. 

Well, isn’t that a sweet thing to say.

I’m so tired of this year and it is not going anywhere. 

You know what, Sebastian? This is actually less like talking to ELIZA, and more like talking to a Ouija board.

I just want to go out and about. 

You’re starting to make more and more sense, actually, as this conversation goes on. And wanting to leave the conversation makes the most sense of all.

The fact that you can get the hang of it is the best thing ever. 

Alright. Let’s wrap this up. Shall we go out with song?

The only way. 

  • You remind me of the babe.
  • Of course I do. 
  • The babe with the power.
  • Of?
  • The power of voodoo.
  • I don’t. 
  • You do.
  • I’m not sure what to say. 
  • Remind me of the babe.

And how about this one:

  • But you must pay the rent.
  • I don’t think that I can. 
  • But you must pay the rent.
  • I don’t think that I can. 
  • I’ll pay the rent.
  • Of course you can. 
  • Curses, foiled again.

I’m so tired and hungry. 

The end.

The Voice of the Shepherd

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C), April 17, 2016. The gospel of the day is John 10:22-30. In this sermon, I focus on just how powerful and subversive God’s grace is.

Don’t leave us in suspense anymore, Jesus. Tell us now, plainly. Are you the Messiah? Are you our Savior?

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

I don’t know for sure if I’m hearing you. How can I tell? Your voice isn’t like other voices.

Listen for something on the wind that says, “I love you.”
Something on the wind that says, “I forgive you.”
Something on the wind that says, “Follow me, and receive life.”
That is my voice.

I do hear that voice sometimes, Jesus, but I also hear many other voices.
Voices that say, “God is angry with you.”
Voices that say, “God is punishing you.”
Voices that say, “You haven’t been good enough.”

You know that those are not my voice.

But many people say that is your voice. And many parts of scripture seem to concur. I want to believe that your voice is one of love and forgiveness, but I’m scared that’s not who you are.

You are my sheep, and I am your shepherd. Listen to my voice. I am the one who gives you eternal life. Follow me, and receive that life.

I believe in you, Jesus, and I’m trying to follow you, but I’m scared that I will slip someday. What if my faith slips? What if I drift away? Will I lose my chance to go to heaven?

No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand. No one will ever snatch you out of my hand. Not the devil, not any earthly leader, not even you. Do you think you are stronger than my love? Do you think you have the power to nullify my promise? There is nothing you can do to take my love away from you.

Jesus, I’m suffering today. Do I have to wait until I die to find peace?

I give my sheep eternal life. Eternal life isn’t only about the afterlife. It’s a different kind of living now. It’s a gift I give you now. Your suffering may not go away immediately, but you will find life, eternal life even in it. Listen to my voice, and you’ll find it.

Jesus, I’ve made too many mistakes. How many times will you forgive me?

I told Simon Peter to forgive seventy-seven times. How much more with your heavenly Father forgive?

Jesus, I’m gay.
Jesus, I’m transgender.
sorrow-699606_1920Jesus, I have cancer.
Jesus, I have schizophrenia.
Jesus, I’m a Republican.
Jesus, I’m a Democrat.
Jesus, I’m black.
Jesus, I’m white.
Jesus, I’m an immigrant.
Jesus, I’m disabled.
Jesus, I’m a soldier.
Jesus, I’m a criminal.
Jesus, I’m a child.
Jesus, I’m retired.
Jesus, I’m rich.
Jesus, I’m poor.
Jesus, what about me?

If you hear my voice, then you are one of my sheep. I love you. Follow me. And together, all of you are my flock. Together, all of you, follow me.

But Jesus, I don’t get along with all these people.

You are my sheep. You are my flock. I am calling you all to follow me. You don’t have to agree with one another. You don’t have to like one another. But I am calling you to love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another.

But Jesus, what if we don’t love each other?

I love you. I forgive you. I’ll give you another chance. And another. And another. Remember that I love all my sheep. Remember that I forgive all my sheep. Remember that I am guiding all my sheep into eternal life. And no one will snatch any of them away from me.

Jesus, help me to do this.

Yes.

 

On Telemarketers and the Origin of Sin

I’ve gotten several telemarketer calls lately. I should just hang up. I know I should. Instead, my whole world turns red, my stomach churns, my neocortex shuts down, my lizard brain takes ascendance. I should just hang up. I know I should. I should be courteous. I know I should. But I don’t. I experience a feeling that can only be described with the words, “How dare you?” How dare you infringe on my privacy? How dare you interrupt my day? How dare you use my telephone to abuse me in this way? You know, spam email doesn’t bother me at all. Junk snail mail doesn’t bother me at all. Send that all you want. I’ll either be mildly amused or just ignore it. But my telephone? How dare you? Leave me alone, you wretched boil-popper, you human paraquat!

Today I received one of these calls on my cell phone. My cell phone! Cell phones are supposed to be exempt from this satanic ritual. Cell phones are supposed to be imbued with beatific favor, a holy dispensation freeing them from the millennium of purgatory that is unsolicited calls. Landlines have no such favor, and must make penance to be added to the Book of Life, also known as the Do Not Call list. But cell phones are immune. They are like children before the age of reason, cherubic souls whose original sin has not yet set in. My misunderstanding of Catholic dogma is astounding. Blame the invalid neocortex. Blame the Lutheranism in my bones. (Just today I heard a good one. What’s a Lutheran? A Catholic who failed Latin.) Yet I’m going to push the metaphor further.

I think the problem is smart phones. Let us open the Holy Book for evidence of my theory. The book of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were once happy, sinless, innocent folk living on God’s back forty, frolicking and picnicking. (Wait…maybe it was the Crash Test Dummies who reported the picnic. Well, anyway, they were happy.) The problem came when they achieved self-awareness. When they sat up in bed one morning, and said, “I’m me.” (No, wait…that actually happened to me. It’s my earliest memory. Remarkably, it’s also the earliest memory of a dear friend of mine. I still can’t get over how weird that is.) According to scripture, our mutual ancestors made the mistake of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then everything went downhill: they developed anxiety, fear, shame, eviction, and after many generations the Twilight books and movies. (Seriously, vampires that glitter in sunlight? How are they vampires? Could you not think of a new word for these creatures you invented?)

Sorry, back to smart phones. Wait, I’m not there yet. I’m still in Genesis. I am convinced that the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve is true. Not in a historical, literal way. That’s just silly. Sorry, fundamentalists, but ancient Eastern writing was never meant to be read that way. No, but I think it’s a sublime explanation for why humans suffer in a particular way no other animals do. Why we have angst. It’s because we have knowledge. We have sampled of that tree of knowledge, and in doing so, we now understand our own mortality. We comprehend our own existence. We stare in the face of death, terrified of the skull staring back at us, the skull we recognize as our own. A long time ago, somewhere in the lineage of Homo sapiens or Homo erectus or Homo whatever, the first self-aware proto-human woke up and said, “I’m me.” And everything in our shared human history has been footnotes to that moment. And that was the first moment when a creature could actively and consciously do something against the will of God. The first moment when a creature could self-reflectively choose. The first moment when a creature knew what it meant to be all alone in the night. This is what the Fall means to me. The very possibility of sin (turning away from God) doesn’t exist until the evolution of self-awareness. Rocks can’t sin. Trees can’t sin. Snails can’t sin. Can dogs? Cats? Whales? Well, that depends on whether they’re self-aware or not. And I am not going to stir up that pot.

But it’s a particular kind of knowledge, reflective self-awareness, that has lost humans (and perhaps others) paradise. It doesn’t mean we’ve been punished, but rather that, quite literally, ignorance was bliss. We longer have that ignorance. Paradise lost. Bliss evaporated.

Now watch these acrobatics. Our pre-human ancestors, whom I will call “flip-humans” (hey, I said acrobatics, and also, you’ll see where I’m going with it) were innocent and ignorant, blissful and sinless, possessing the halo of the unaware. (Kind of like we all do before what I will call the age of reflective reason, the moment when we as individuals become self-aware.) But then the Apple arrived on the scene, the fruit of the tree of…well, let’s just say the Apple. And thanks to the Apple, humans began to recognize their own self, their own “I.” They became attached to this I, and became iHumans. And all at once, they were different. They had the form of humans, but were different. If they had developed the Greek language, they would call humans anthropoi, and hence might think of their new identities as anthropoid, having the form of anthropoi. Maybe they’d even nickname themselves Android. They (…also…) became (…sprach…) smart humans (…ZARATHUSTRA!).

Of course, they weren’t the only ones. Those poor lamented Neandertals. They may have been our betters in some ways. But they lost the race. The simple homes they built, outfitted with the nicest (ahem) Windows, just couldn’t withstand the huff and puff of the big bad app war.

The alchemists and occultists have a motto: As above, so below. (I think they do, anyway. I got this information from a Doctor Who fan. I guess I could fact-check it. Nah. This guy knows his Kaled from his Thal. I trust him.) As with humans, so with phones. When flip-phones became smart phones, they lost their innocence, they lost their immunity from the arrows of hell itself. And they began to receive the calls of telemarketers.

Oh yeah. That’s what this was all about. Telemarketers. And how angry they make me. Stupid telemarketers. Aren’t they aware of what they’re doing? Maybe next time I’ll just hang up.

Preamble Ramble

So, I’m trying to figure out what I will do with this blog. I want to write. Quite frankly, I feel I need to write. And for my own sake, for the sake of my growth and the future of my future, I have to write to an audience. An audience beyond myself. An audience beyond my dreams. An audience beyond my own future.

I used to do this. It was quite common, in fact. I wrote in order to be seen, in order to be discovered, in order to be found, in order to be loved. Then I turned away from that. I put an end to those particular childish things. And yet…

…and yet…

…and yet, I have kicked against the goads of writing for an audience for so long. I have tried to keep this inside, and a part of me has been screaming from the rooftop of my soul. And so I am here. I write this blog, knowing that someone just may read it. I write this blog, knowing that someone just may read its words, wondering what brilliant artiste put fingers to keys and shone forth this melody of literature. I write this blog, knowing that someone may read its words, wondering what self-absorbed sod wrote this mess of navel-gazing nonsense. I write this blog, knowing I might get praised or rejected, adored or ignored. It’s terrifying. I fear that this will reveal that inside I am empty. That I am nothing more than an avatar pretending to be real, that I’ve just been playing at the Turing test for so long I’ve even convinced myself that I’ve won the game. I’m a real boy, after all.

So what shall I discuss? I don’t know. I’ll discuss that tomorrow. For now, I’m just happy to have this first post published. And read by…well, nobody yet.