"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Soccer, Spirit, and Connections


Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm 119:105-112

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

           In a few hours, many of us baseball-loving Americans will be watching the final World Cup soccer match on our TV sets. So here’s a question for you to ponder as you watch: Is life more like baseball or is it more like soccer?
Columnist David Brooks asks that question in an op ed piece this week.[1] Brooks explains that we often think of the game of life as being more like baseball. We see ourselves as involved in a series of individual activities and achievements. After all, in baseball, a team that performs the most individual tasks well, like throwing a strike or hitting a line drive, is likely to win the game.[2] In the same way, we see our collaboration at work and at home in terms of our own personal wins and losses, in terms of our own straight-line efforts to “accomplish” a day.
Brooks then points out, however, that life is really more like soccer, because life, like soccer, is a game about occupying and controlling space. It is about team formations. It is a collective game with odds that are hard to control. According to Brooks, Germany beat Brazil so lopsidedly this week because Brazil did a bad job controlling space on the field, even though Brazil’s individual players were statistically better than Germany’s. In life, we are constantly absorbing our thoughts and even our life choices from the teachings and utterances of those around us. We depend on our networks of friends and colleagues (on and off Facebook!) We depend for our financial flourishing on the structure of the economy that surrounds us. We see ourselves through the eyes of our loved ones. We live and move and have our being within multiple systems of connection.
Brooks’ article is interesting in helping us to ponder the connectivity of our lives. It struck me, though, that one could pull Brooks’ metaphor a bit further in a theological direction. Perhaps that St. Paul is suggesting in our reading from Romans that Life in the Spirit is also like playing soccer.  In Romans, when we hear Paul talking about “flesh” and “spirit,” it sounds to us as if he is separating body and soul. It sounds as if he is saying that our bodily desires and feelings are sinful and that it is only our disembodied spirits that can communicate with God. But that’s not what Paul is really getting at. For Paul, the “things of the flesh” are not necessarily only physical things. We are in “the flesh,” when we measure reality apart from the way that God structures it, when we forget that the space in which we live belongs to God.  By living our lives in a straight line, consumed with our individual plans and bound by structures of our own devising, we are living “in the flesh.”[3]
In the same way, we are in “the spirit,” not when we play around in the realm of ideas and thoughts, but when we play God’s game, in God’s structures, letting all the space around us be filled with God’s presence. Opposition to God, being “in sin,” is refusing to shape my life in accordance with God’s activity in the world.[4] So what Paul is saying is that life in Christ is kind of like a game of soccer—where God owns the field. We play the position that God has assigned to us, free to use our brains and to make our plays with others, yet understanding that the space that we are trying to control is open to the movements of our Creator. Not only do the networks of people around us influence our thoughts and our actions—God’s Spirit, too, controls structures beyond our comprehension. God’s borders dwarf our borders. Our barriers are no match for God’s pervasive love. Our limitations cannot limit God’s possibilities. The mysterious and uplifting “team spirit” that fills and inspires us as we play, drawing all of our individual efforts together, is the Spirit of Christ. It is that Holy Spirit within us and around us that gives us the power to win the game.
OK, I’ve got to be honest with you. Now that I have the attention of the soccer fans among us, I’m going to have to stop with the sports analogies before I make a terrible blunder and have you all pulling out your hair over my incomprehension of the intricacies of the game. I don’t know much about soccer at all, so I am going to carry our theme of structure and space over into an area that has been concerning ME this summer: gardening.
Plants, like soccer players and like us, live and have their being in a certain context. Root systems spread out into the space available to them. They intertwine with one another. They share water and nutrients from the soil.  It’s no wonder then that the tomato plants that I lazily stuck into some hard, unturned earth full of old ivy vines, tree roots, and invasive mint,  have dropped their blossoms and have produced nothing but leaves. For gardeners, too, the trick is to fill and manage well the space.
Or so it seems on the surface. Did you know that there are fungi called mycorrhizae? They are found everywhere, in almost every ecosystem in the world. They are invisible, living in the soil, and they live in symbiotic relationships with 90 percent of plants on earth. The fungi penetrate the roots of plants and provide them with food and water from the soil. In turn, the fungi receive food from the plants. These fungi even link plants of all different species, as they “run” through the soil from one kind of plant to another, both living plants and dead plants.[5] You might say that the fungi are like soccer players, passing the ball down the field. You might say that the fungi are like the Spirit of Christ, moving unseen throughout the world, sustaining and giving life, filling us with God’s presence, creating connection between the living and the dead. In the flesh, my tomato plants are hemmed in by hot bricks. But underneath, in the spirit, life flows forth like a stream.
In today’s parable, the Sower doesn’t worry much about where he is planting his seeds, does he? It seems as if he is not “managing his space” very well, doesn’t it? He throws those valuable little seeds out everywhere with reckless abandon: into the weeds, onto the path, into the rocks, as well as into the good soil. And yet, despite his wasteful way of planting, the Sower ends up with a harvest of extraordinary abundance. In some places, his grain comes in a hundredfold. I can’t even get that kind of return with MiracleGro! Jesus is showing us a picture of a God who is constantly pouring out God’s Word of Love into Creation—into fertile places and into dead places. God is constantly making connections that we don’t see, molding our hearts, working around and in and through the space that we fill ourselves.
On my same little patio with my blossomless tomato plants, there is another plant that lives “in the Holy Spirit.” Last year, I had my whole patio redone. I had the bricks removed, the gravel underneath scooped out, and a thick slab of concrete poured before the bricks were re-laid on top. Yet, this summer, right in the middle of that new patio, a little weed has sprung up through a tiny opening that is too small for my eyes to see. Unfertilized, unwatered, uncared for by me, this little weed is growing tall and strong through the concrete. The networks of fungi that nurture it must exist somewhere under that concrete, but they belong to the powerful and invisible networks of our Creator.
Assured by Resurrection of the love and power of a Living God, we have no need to burrow down into our hearts, looking for fertile soil. We have no cause to give up, either, when the harvest around us appears lean. We have only to strengthen our connections: our connections with one another and with our world but also our deep, unseen connections with God’s constantly creating Word.
So whether you are gardening or watching soccer this afternoon, look for the connections, the running roots and the running players, and see the unstoppable Spirit of Christ filling the field, ready to erupt in a shout of victory or a green shoot of life.

[1] David Brooks, “Baseball or Soccer,” The New York Times, July 10, 2104. Found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/opinion/david-brooks-baseball-or ....
[2] Ibid.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001),  130.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 20-21.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Who will save us from this body of death?

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Psalm 45: 11-18

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sometimes it feels better not to know, doesn’t it? Reading the newspaper or watching the news can be dangerous to one’s happiness. I was happier before I knew about those immigrant children whose dreams for a better life are propelling them into the desert to die. I was happier before I knew the nasty and inhumane conditions in which most of my favorite chicken meat is raised. I was happier before I knew that companies in my investment portfolio take advantage of child laborers in Bangladesh or spill oil in pristine seas.  I’ll never forget the day when, as a teenager, a friend’s parents drove me back to my nice home by a new and different route, returning from the airport after a wonderful, amazing, expensive trip to Europe. The freeway overpass took me for the first time over the dilapidated shacks hidden in one of Houston’s many “wards,” or barrios, and guilt spread through my veins like poison. I was definitely happier before I saw the underbelly of my hometown. As a Christian, I want to follow Jesus, and yet finding solutions to any of these problems is totally overwhelming and fraught with costly re-evaluation of the values by which I like to live. How do we live with the burden, once we’ve seen? “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
St. Paul was once a happy Pharisee named Saul. He immersed himself in God’s Teaching, in all of the wisdom and insight of the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. For Saul, the Torah was a glimpse of God, a light to those in darkness, and the place to find the rules by which human beings can live in blessed relationship with God. For Saul the Pharisee, the renegade rabbi Jesus lived the life of a sinner. Jesus broke the Torah’s rules time and time again, flouting the holiness of God and hanging out with criminals and prostitutes. His death on a Roman cross was good riddance, a death cursed by God himself. But then--after Saul the Pharisee experiences God also in Christ and becomes Paul the Apostle, he is able to use his own experience of cognitive dissonance as a way to explain to others the grace that he found on the Damascus Road. For Paul, the effect of the law on our behavior is like the effect of the news reports on my own life. It can make me aware, but it is powerless to change my heart. The law can tell me that I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself, but it can’t force me to change my unloving behavior. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can change us, says Paul.
Right before Paul describes our common human bondage to the grip of sin in today’s Epistle, he uses the example of the sin of covetousness to explain his point. To covet is “the need to have, possess, or acquire in order to secure being and worth.”[1] It is the pervasive, human “desiring disease,” and it is a stealthy sin, born from the God-sized hole in each of our hearts. When you kill someone or steal from someone, the evidence of your act is visible to the world. Yet you can hide your covetousness quietly inside your heart. Covetousness is insidious—so much so that, like Saul the Pharisee, it can be manifest in you as you covet God’s favor by leading a scrupulously upright life![2]
Several years ago, Eastern Area Community Ministries gathered the pastors of the area to take a stand against the “payday loan” companies that are proliferating in our area of town. In my privilege, I had never heard of payday loan companies, yet there are two payday loan storefronts in this country for every Starbucks, plus you can find even more online.[3] I learned about people like Susie, a working single mom who borrowed just a little money to get her children some Christmas presents. When she couldn’t pay it back, the company began to garnish her wages and to apply huge rates of interest on the unpaid debt. Two years later, with the debt still churning and no end in sight, she and her children were holed up in her sister’s basement and relying on temp work to pay off the loans.[4] They had become slaves to their mounting debt.
Payday loan companies lure the poor by appealing to our human desire to possess instantly and magically the things that we cannot afford, the things that we think we give us worth and happiness. These companies entice us to covet. Yet we who invest in these companies and allow them to flourish in our communities without regulation are also breaking God's law against covetousness, for we also greedily desire the profits that we can make on the backs of the poor. We covet the power that these companies give us over other people’s lives.
For me, the payday loan scandal is a perfect metaphor for the all-pervasive power of Sin that Paul is lamenting in our Epistle—Sin not as individual infractions but as a destructive power in which we all participate against our wills. It is a power that entraps us, that enslaves us, that garnishes our hard-earned wages of virtue and creates an ever and ever larger debt toward God. When we start to incur the debt, we tell ourselves that we are managing our lives just fine, that we have this thing under control. But the more we “manage,” the more our lives spiral out of control. Moreover, like the owners of the payday loan companies, we’re constantly trying to control the gift of Life that God freely pours out on God’s Creation.[5] We try to control God’s reaction to our behavior by claiming: “Hey, God, I obeyed these five laws, so I get a reward.” Or “Hey, my neighbor broke this law over here, so he is going to hell.” Like the hypocrites that Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we are still sitting like clueless children in the marketplaces, calling down judgment on one another, except now the marketplaces are online. “He has a demon,” we type, when our political opponents offer a solution to the world’s problems. “He’s not following scripture!” we whine, when our religious opponents take a stand. All the while, our own guilt and powerlessness churn in our guts, as we drift further and further from the gift of love that God offers us. “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
          There is perhaps no place as guilt-inspiring to us rich Americans as the slums India. One of my seminary professors used to be a Roman Catholic monk and worked for a short time with Mother Theresa there. One day, he saw a young nun bathing and massaging the decaying bodies of the beggars who were dying on the streets. She would clean the maggots from their wounds, rub shriveled limbs with oils and soothing medicines, and change dirty rags, all while speaking softly to the dying and holding their hand. The young nun committed herself each day to a routine of seeing Christ himself in the slum dwellers, loving them as she loved Christ. She worked not to rack up points with God, but saw herself as God’s slave, her existence itself shaped by a pattern that she had seen in the life of Christ. One day, a law-bound visitor challenged Mother Theresa on the wisdom of seeing Christ in sick Hindus who were not part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Mother Theresa pointed to the young nun who was standing there holding a beggar’s hand. She answered that when that beggar died and stood before Christ at the gates of heaven, he would look up right away into Christ’s loving face and say in awe,
“Hey, I know you! You were just washing me and loving me as I was dying. I want to go with you. Please take me into your Kingdom!”
As the young nun served God, taking on the gentle yet all-consuming yoke of Christ, she was transformed. She was in Christ, free from a life bound by the sinfulness of the world, free from guilt, and her transformation opened the way to the kingdom of God, not just for her, but for all those whom she touched.
St. Augustine writes in his Confessions that his conversion to Christianity happened when he heard God’s voice saying, “You will not change me into yourself like bodily food: you will be changed into me.”[6]
          “Who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That is news that brings the only true and lasting happiness.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth &Helwys, 2001), 121.
          [2] Ibid., 122.                                                                        
          [3] http://kansaslegalservices.org/node/1554
          [4] Ibid.
[5] Luke Timothy Johnson, 116ff.
[6] Augustine, The Confessions, John E. Rotelle, ed. (New York: New York City Press, 1997),173.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Love of Stranger, Love of Country: A Homily for Independence Day

Deuteronomy 10:17-21
Hebrews 11:8-16
Matthew 5:43-48
Psalm 145:1-9

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The fourth of July is our national holiday, a day of celebration, a day to be proud of our heritage, to get goose-bumps from looking at our flag, to rejoice boisterously over our many blessings with fireworks and friends.  So the lessons assigned to us today by the lectionary might have seemed strangely out of place as you heard them read. Their demands are certainly enough to turn any celebration to gloomy and critical introspection!  In Deuteronomy, we hear the command to care for the stranger and to provide justice for the poor and marginalized. In Hebrews, we hear the cry that our true country is a heavenly country, not an earthly one. And in Matthew, we are given Jesus’ weighty injunction to love our enemies! Given this biblical witness, what, I wondered, do we mean when we rejoice in loving our country on this national holiday?
We just sang in our hymn that we love our country’s “name.” And that we love our country’s “rocks and rills, [its] woods and templed hills.” While I consider myself blessed to have been born in a country where freedoms are guaranteed, and I do get goose bumps when I look out over the Grand Canyon or the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’m not so sure that loving an abstract name or beautiful scenery is really what loving a country is all about. As a matter of fact, when I lived in Europe, the time that I would most long for my home in Houston was when I would drive through the Ruhr Valley in Germany, and I would smell the noxious fumes of the oil refineries. I surely wasn’t thinking of my country’s beauty then! It was rather the ties of love established in my childhood for which I longed. The oil refinery smell just brought that love to mind. It’s how objects and words recall for us our relationships with the people who are close to our hearts that make the smells and views and ideals-- and our country-- beloved. The soldiers who risk death for love of country, after all, don’t generally put their lives on the line for a landscape. They risk their own lives somehow to protect the lives and rights and freedoms of the people whom they love. That’s why they put soldiers into companies, after all, so that they will forge bonds with their fellow soldiers—bonds for which they are willing to kill and die.
Back in the 18th century, the Rev. Richard Price, a British non-Conformist minister who was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, wrote:By our country is meant … not the soil or the spot of earth on which we happen to have been born; not the forests and fields, but that community of which we are members; or that body of companions and friends and kindred who are associated with us under the same constitution of government, protected by the same laws, and bound together by the same civil polity.”[1] Price goes on to point out that it is natural for us to love our own family and friends best of all, but that love of country should not imply “conviction of the superior value [of my country] to other countries,” nor should it include “rivalship and ambition” between nations. Just as we called by God to extend the love we have for our friends and family to all of humanity, we should, as Price writes, “love [our country] ardently, but not exclusively. We ought to seek its good, by all the means that our different circumstances and abilities will allow; but at the same time we ought to consider ourselves as citizens of the world, and take care to maintain a just regard to the rights of other countries.”[2]
Indeed, no matter where we turn in the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, we seem to come across the divine command to love the stranger. The “stranger,” the “foreigner,” is the person from outside the community, one who is not part of the Covenant between God and Israel, the one who is dependent upon the community for any economic and political rights.[3] A society that sees itself as the chosen people of God, a society that has been attacked by a series of major powers and drug into exile in Babylon, where their own very identity as a people is threatened, that society could easily close in upon itself, rejecting those at the margins, ignoring or harming those who do not belong. But God will not let Israel shower all of her love and justice upon her own kind. God will not let them turn inward.
          Jesus, too, takes this Old Testament command and even intensifies it. Not only should we love the stranger, says Jesus, but we should love our enemies. Writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer on today’s Gospel: “It is the great mistake of a false Protestant ethic to assume that loving Christ can be the same as loving one’s native country … What is Christian depends on the ‘extraordinary,’” the strangeness of God that is seen in the Cross. What is the “extraordinary?” It is, writes Bonhoeffer, “a deed that the disciples do. [This deed of self-giving love] has to be done … and done visibly! Not in ethical rigor, not in the eccentricity of Christian ways of life, but in the simplicity of Christian obedience to the will of Jesus.”[4] If we are to listen to Bonhoeffer--a man who took action, practicing what he preached, following Jesus even to his own death in a Nazi concentration camp--then Christians are indeed called to love friends, neighbors, and even enemies with the active, engaged, and concrete Love of Christ.
As Christians on this Independence Day, then, we must be sure that our love of country includes loving relationships not just with our family and friends, but with the poor, the marginalized, and the foreigner. The most patriotic feelings that I had felt in years welled up in my breast one afternoon as I sat at a Kentucky Refugee Ministries luncheon, listening as men and women from far-away places from Iraq to Burma stood up and testified to us about their difficult lives in wars and in refugee camps. They then told of their joy to be welcomed to Louisville and to be here, safe in this country. Hearing their stories, I was proud of my country for welcoming the stranger and anxious to do my part to join in that effort. On the other hand, when I see the pictures on the news these days of my fellow Americans waving flags, wearing scowls, and holding protest signs marked “Return to Sender,” as Federal officials try to process the busloads of children who have risked their lives alone to find a better life in our country, I am far from proud.[5] When I read about children crying behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire in mass detention centers, I cringe.[6] I know that the solution to the present deluge of immigrant children crossing our borders is complex, and there are no easy political answers. Yet, I don’t feel as if it is a problem that we Christians can shout away. It is an expensive problem that must be dealt with. As followers of Christ, we must remember these children, and all of those Americans hanging on by the skin of their teeth to the edges of our society, as we profess our love of country this day.
          God loves us all—the outcast, the disenfranchised, the rich, the powerful, the people whom we love and the people whom we dislike and those whom we ignore. God loves the people in my country and the people in countries where I have never set foot. Today, on this Independence Day, our liturgy is symbolic. We walk into church solemnly and respectfully carrying our country’s flag, the flag that symbolizes our love for our people and for the political ideals that are meant to assure justice and freedom for all. And after the Eucharist, where we become one with the whole community of saints, with those in our earthly parish home and with those in that greater heavenly homeland referred to in our epistle, we then walk out behind the Cross, following Jesus into a world that waits for extraordinary action from this body of Christian disciples--who just happen to be Americans.

[1] Richard Price, “The Discourse on the Love of Country, 1789,” Modern History Sourcebook. Found at http://fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1789price-patriotism.html.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Johanna Van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple (Eerdman’s, 2005), 28.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Sermon on the Mount, 144-45.
[5] http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/California-protests-steer-immigrant-children-to-5598276.php
[6] http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-texas-immigrant-children-20140618-story.html#page=1