Monday, November 17, 2014

More Hope

As you well know by now, this week’s gospel reading (Mt. 25:31-46), the parable of the sheep and goats, is particularly important to me.  It forms the basis of a lot of my theological thinking, and it is the lens through which I see the church, the world, and the interaction between the two.  In truth, it is the passage that forms the basis of how I understand the basic interaction between God and humanity, Christian or not.  It has everything to do with how I understand mission. 
You remember the story.  The Son of Man gathers all of humanity together and separates them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  The sheep, gathered at the right hand, are blessed; the goats, gathered at the left, are condemned.  The basis of the judgment has to do with how one has responded to the needs of the poor, giving them food when hungry, drink when thirsty, welcome when lonely, clothing when needed, and whether one has visited them when sick or in prison.  “Truly I tell you,” says the Son of Man, “ just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  The Son of Man and the poor are one.  It is a radical teaching.
It is also a disturbing teaching, for the opposite is also true.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
And that is a pretty sobering message, or at least it is for me.  I know that I pass many a hungry person on the streets of New York and do not even look in their eyes.  It is rather like fear of looking directly at the face of God perhaps.  The judgment to come ought to cause me sleepless nights.
Sometimes, though, I run across reason to hope.  An article in ENS last week was such an occasion.  Two weeks ago, an Episcopal priest named Mark Sims was arrested and charged with a crime in Ft. Lauderdale.  He was fingerprinted, photographed, and released with a court date on a charge that carries a possible $500 fine and 60 days in jail.  Do you know what the crime was?  It was that he fed homeless people in a city park and he led his congregation to do likewise.   
Now I don’t know Mark Sims, although I’m calling him today.  I want to hear his story.  I want to hear his story because I’m pretty sure he has seen Jesus, and that is something I would like to hear about.  I want to hear his story because I think he had five talents and just made a big profit.  I want Canon Sims to know he inspired me to be a better Christian.  I want Canon Sims to know he has given me hope, not just hope to avoid the judgment.  More importantly, it has given me hope to enter into the presence of God more fully day by day on the streets.  And isn’t that what the mission is?

Monday, November 10, 2014

The End is Near?

It’s not uncommon to see someone holding a sign in Times Square with a rather disturbing warning:  “The End is Near.”  It’s enough to cause sleepless nights. 
This week’s epistle (1 Thess. 5:1-11) has St. Paul holding such a  sign.  “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (v. 2).  Paul and the earliest disciples believed the world would soon end.  From their perspective, the end was just around the corner.
And that fact had concrete consequences for how to live, according to Paul.  “Let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8).  With God so close at hand, it ought to call out in Christians, not fear, but faith, love, and hope, the most important Christian virtues. 
Here’s the problem with the end.  No one knows when it is coming.  It will come suddenly according to Paul, like a thief in the night or the sudden onset of labor.  So, the coming of the end calls for perpetual vigilance.  One must be constantly prepared.  Paul specifically calls for disregarding any thought that the coming of the end has been delayed.  And that’s the way it is, nearly 2,000 years after Paul did the equivalent of taking to Times Square with a scary sign.
It seems to me there’s only one approach to this reality.  It has been a long time since Paul announced the message, an awfully long time to be on the edge of preparation.  The End is Near?  Who knows?  I think we’re better off to treat the end as if it’s here now, not near but already come.  So let the faith, love, and hope Paul counseled prevail.  The end is here!  Or at least we’re going to act like it is.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Some books you read in order to know something.  I recently read a book by Larry Sabato called the Kennedy Half Century.  Dr. Sabato is a political scientist (my undergraduate major) and he wrote about how the legacy of John F. Kennedy had influenced the administration of each of the Presidents who had followed him for the next 50 years.  It is a book I read in order to learn something about a subject that interested me, politics.  I read the Kennedy Half Century because I wanted to know something a period of time in which I have lived and by which I have been influenced.
The Bible is not such a book, try as we often do to make it such.  This week’s epistle (1 Thess. 4:13-15) is a good example.  It speaks about an important topic, one that has been of ultimate interest to human beings since human beings appeared on the Earth, which is what is beyond death.  First Thessalonians does not offer information or knowledge.  It does not even offer opinion.  It offers something much more important to being human.
Paul wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  What the Bible has to offer is hope.  It may be an informed hope, but it is still fundamentally hope.  And hope, I think, is, in the end, more important than knowledge. 
This is a bit hard for those of who have grown up in the modern world, which is all about what we know.  Faith, though, has a different value.  It is all about what we hope. 
Knowledge, after all, will pass away.  I don’t know, of course, but I believe hope will last.  At least I hope so.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Engaging the Question

Jesus asked the Pharisees a clever question.  “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”  The Pharisees knew the obvious answer.  “The son of David.”  (Mt. 22:42)  But Jesus had a not-so-obvious point to make using a very close reading of a fairly obscure passage.  But here’s the main thing.  Jesus made his point not as a statement but as a question.  He tossed the ball back to the Pharisees:  “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  (v. 45)  He invited engagement.
What interests me most is that the Pharisees were apparently trying to test Jesus in some way.  Jesus, though, attempted to engage them in a conversation.  He posed questions.  Questions invite further conversation.  Unfortunately, the Pharisees cut the conversation off.  “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (v. 46) 
I think the mistake the Pharisees made was concentrating on the answers.  Answers have a finality to them.  That’s the answer and that’s that.  Or, as we sometimes hear where I’m from:  “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  Questions invite further engagement and ongoing conversation in a way that answers just do not.
Jesus is much more about ongoing conversation than answers because ongoing conversation is fundamentally relational.  To be in conversation is to be in relationship.  That matters a lot more than answers. 
The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, stopped engaging.  That doesn’t leave much room for relationship.  And there is no salvation outside of relationship.  Not even Jesus can work with those who refuse to engage.  We don’t have to have the answers.  All we have to do is engage the question.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Might as Well Have Stayed Home

When you’re a bishop you get a lot of interesting mail.  Some of it is angry.  Some of it is humorous.  Some of it is angry and unintentionally humorous.  This is about a letter of the last sort.
I can’t remember what I said that set my correspondent off.  Something heretical about grace or the unconditional nature of God’s love, or I suspect, God’s call on the church to respond with unconditional acceptance and inclusion of everyone, absolutely everyone.  Someone who didn’t see it quite the same way wrote me what was intended to be a rebuke.  “If the Kingdom of God is as inclusive as you say it is,” the email read, “why would anyone want to be a part of it?”  I guess some people would rather just stay home if the wrong people get invited.
Well, there you have the basic problem.  It is one Jesus addressed in a parable about a king who gave a wedding banquet (Mt. 22:1-14).  The invited guests responded badly.  Some made flimsy excuses.  Others ignored the invitation.  Still others responded violently.  (It’s interesting that invitations to God’s banquet not infrequently result in violently negative reactions.)
When the original guests failed to accept, the king was not deterred.  He sent his messengers into the streets to invite everyone and anyone they could find.  They did so, to both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.  I guess the original invitees wouldn’t have wanted to be there anyway, especially if they knew who eventually showed up.
But then, as Matthew tells this story, there’s one more curiosity.  Among the guests was a man who showed up not wearing the proper wedding garment.  With this, the king was not so pleased and has the man cast out. 
Scholars will tell you these two parts of the stories were completely separate sayings as Jesus actually told them, and that Matthew put them together simply because they both involved wedding banquets.  Who am I to argue with scholars, and I have no doubt they’re right. 
Still, if we’re lucky enough to get an invitation, I think it would behoove us to show up with our party clothes and dancing shoes on.  Otherwise, we might as well have stayed home, and in that case we deserve to get thrown out.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Judgment and Love

The parable Jesus told about a landowner who planted a vineyard and then leased it out to tenants (Mt. 21:33-46) appears to be about judgment.  I have begun to question that. 
The landowner planted a fine vineyard.  He put a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants.  When the time of the harvest came, he sent his slaves to collect the produce of the vineyard as rent.  But the tenants killed the slaves and did not send the produce.  He sent more slaves.  The same result.  Finally, the landowner sent his son to collect the produce.  He also was killed.  Jesus asked his hearers what would be the natural result of this sort of behavior.  They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give them the produce at the harvest time.”  Sounds like judgment to me. 
There is another story in the Bible about just such a vineyard, and it happens to be one of this week’s options for an Old Testament reading (Isa. 5:1-7).  The parallel is uncanny.  It is about another landowner who planted a vineyard.  He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines.  He built a watchtower in the midst of it.  He hewed out a vine vat in it.  Still, despite all the effort, it yielded inferior grapes.  And then Isaiah goes on to pronounce judgment on the vineyard, the removal of its hedge, the breaking down of its wall, its trampling down, its wasting away.  It would sound like judgment were it not for the way Isaiah begins his story:  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” 
It is a song of love and a broken heart more than it is a prophecy of judgment.  It is a song of God’s wooing of the people as if a landowner tending the most beloved and cared for of vineyards even if it ends in disappointment.
Perhaps Jesus’ parable bears looking at again in light of the love song that its original hearers would have had in mind when Jesus told it to begin with.  Immediately after the answer that the tenants will no doubt be put to a miserable death, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 with reference to the son of the landowner who had been killed in the story and no doubt with reference to his own imminent death.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  And then he goes on to refer to that stone again in the very next verse after our reading for this week ends.  It is this.  “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  Sounds like judgment, but is it really?
If we take the rejected cornerstone as a metaphor for Jesus, Jesus is not judgment.  Jesus is love.  Jesus came, he said, not to judge the world but that the world might live.  In Jesus, we are not broken by judgment.  We are broken by love.  And over and over, when we fall on the rock solid love of Jesus, what is broken are our own hearts.  What is crushed is not our spirits or our lives but our hardness of heart.  It takes the rock solid cornerstone to break the stone cold hardness of our souls.  If there is judgment in this parable that Jesus told, and in the love song that Isaiah sung, it is the judgment of love, which is perhaps the hardest judgment of all to face, and also the softest.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Jesus tells a little parable in this week’s gospel reading, Matthew 21:23-32, that rings true to me as the father of two sons.  I doubt it would be different if I were the father of two daughters.  At any rate, Jesus’ choice to make the characters boys hits home.
A father told his sons to go and work in the vineyard.  The first defied him, but later changed his mind and went.  His intentions were not good, at least at first.  The second complied, but then did not go.  We do not know whether he, like his older brother, also changed his mind, or whether he deceived his father from the beginning, so we can’t be sure what his intentions were.  I don’t think Jesus cared which it was.  It’s because the only thing we can be sure of is behavior. 
The point for the father was the working in the vineyard, and not what was in the heads of his two sons.  As a dad who has needed more than once desperately to get some yard work done, this also makes sense to me.  There is no indication that he held the older son’s defiance against him, which speaking as a father, I know is hard to do, but in the end, getting the work done matters more.  The point is the eventual behavior—that the boy went and worked in the vineyard.
Likewise, there is no indication that the father cared whether the younger son lied or changed his mind, only that he did not go and work in the vineyard.  Maybe that’s because fathers would have time for little else if they got bent out of shape every time they got lied to.  What matters, once again, is the behavior and not that the younger son’s intentions either to go (in which case he just changed his mind) or not to go from the very beginning (in which case he was lying).  What matters is his behavior, or lack thereof. 
There are other occasions for dealing with the relational consequences of not telling the truth.  For now, the point is that behavior is what matters.  Intentions, for good or for ill, are not nearly so important.