Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bono, Eugene Peterson, and the Psalms

I'm so grateful to my cousin Anne for sending me the link to this video in which Eugene Peterson and Bono talk about the psalms and the development of their friendship (though not in that order). Eugene Peterson is the one who did the Bible translation The Message, which is in everyday language. Bono, of course, is from U2, but not only do I love their music, I also have a deep appreciation for his work with social causes.  Just checked to see if Wikipedia had a good blurb to summarize, and sure enough they do:

Bono's work as an activist, which is due largely to his Christian beliefs,[40] began in earnest when, inspired by Live Aid, he travelled to Ethiopia to work in a feeding camp with his wife Alison and the charityWorld Vision, an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organisation.[40] With regard to Bono's 2013 declarations in interviews published and videotaped of his faith in Jesus Christ,[41] he states that Christ was either who he said he was, or he is "a complete and utter nutcase".[42][43] As early as 2005, Bono was invoking this argument,[44][45] identified as the "Lewis trilemma". 

U2's "40" is based on Psalm 40. Sing a new song!

40    Expectans, expectavi
1I waited patiently upon the LORD; *
    he stooped to me and heard my cry.
2He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; *
    he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
3He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God; *
    many shall see, and stand in awe,
    and put their trust in the LORD.
4Happy are they who trust in the LORD! *
    they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.
5Great things are they that you have done, O LORD my God!
how great your wonders and your plans for us! *
    there is none who can be compared with you.
6Oh, that I could make them known and tell them! *
    but they are more than I can count.
7In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure *
    (you have given me ears to hear you);
8Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, *
    and so I said, "Behold, I come.
9In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: *
    'I love to do your will, O my God;
    your law is deep in my heart.'"
10I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; *
    behold, I did not restrain my lips;
    and that, O LORD, you know.
11Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; *
    I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the
                             great congregation.

12You are the LORD;
do not withhold your compassion from me; *
    let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever,
13For innumerable troubles have crowded upon me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see; *
    they are more in number than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails me.
14Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; *
    O LORD, make haste to help me.
15Let them be ashamed and altogether dismayed
who seek after my life to destroy it; *
    let them draw back and be disgraced
    who take pleasure in my misfortune.
16Let those who say "Aha!" and gloat over me be confounded, *
    because they are ashamed.
17Let all who seek you rejoice in you and be glad; *
    let those who love your salvation continually say,
    Great is the LORD!"
18Though I am poor and afflicted, *
    the Lord will have regard for me.
19You are my helper and my deliverer; *
    do not tarry, O my God.

(Book of Common Prayer translation via

"No excluding!"

Last week I attended the Eucharist at St. John's, Hingham. Their new curate, Noah Van Niel, preached a good sermon I meant to share right away (with permission, of course). Well, better late than never. 
Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
Easter V: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
            When I was in elementary school, my favorite part of the day was, as I suspect it may have been for many of you, recess. Running around, freed from the tyranny of teachers who made you sit still, wait your turn, be quiet, I would release all that pent up boyish energy.
            My favorite game on the playground was the dramatically called, “Kill the Carrier.” It was a primordial game in which there was a ball, and whoever had the ball ran around until he (or she, but it was rarely she) was tackled by the swarm, stripped of the ball and the chase was on to the new “carrier.” It was an unsophisticated cross between Rugby and tag. I loved this game because, being a husky child, I was quite good at it. Since there were no teams, just one big swarm, it was hard to say who was “winning” the game, but let’s just say I often was the one who had the ball in my hands when the bell was rung calling us back to the confinement of the classroom.
            There was one rule for “Kill the Carrier,” however, and it was the same rule that there was for all the other activities on the playground: NO EXCLUDING. If someone came up and asked to join the game you had to let them. This rule was ingrained in us from the very beginning of our school years, and by fifth grade, we all took a certain pride in it—“No excluding!” we would yell if we saw someone being forced out or left out of any game.
            “No excluding” seems to be the same call that Peter gets during our reading in Acts this morning. Our portion is from Chapter 11 but in chapter 10, Peter says to Cornelius, the believing Gentile whose house he is visiting, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) He continues, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). So Peter goes on to preach the story of Jesus and as he is speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon these Gentiles and Peter asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) No excluding! The Spirit is saying to Peter.
            It’s worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge what a big shift this is. Jesus, as I hope we all know, was Jewish. And his followers were all Palestinian Jews. The Messiah, was prophesied to save the people of Israel. Gentiles were not awaiting the Son of Man to come and restore their fortunes. But now Peter is realizing that actually Jesus’ message of salvation is meant not just for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but for all people. Roman and Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, God shows no partiality. This is a radical, new, broader applicability of Jesus’ message and a sea change in who it is offered to.
            As with most big shifts, this action is not without its skeptics. In chapter 11, the portion we just heard this morning, Peter has to answer to the Jewish believers back in Jerusalem. What was he doing preaching to and eating with the “uncircumcised”? Peter recounts the event and he summarizes the whole experience as follows: ““The Spirit told me…not to make a distinction between them and us…If God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us [that is, the Holy Spirit] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11: 12, 17) Who was I that I could hinder God?
            I realize that preaching to a congregation of Episcopalians about inclusivity is to a large extent preaching to the converted. But I think it’s important to note that The Episcopal Church takes passages like this as fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be Christians. We uphold a glorious, tradition, and at the same time, are open to the Spirit pushing us into new areas of inclusivity. For Peter it was the Gentiles. For us it has been, recently, including people of different races, genders, sexual orientations and identities fully in the life of the Church and its ministries (lay and ordained). These are big changes and they are not without those who would say, “What are you doing eating with these [insert group name here]?” Our Church has been split over it, our worldwide Communion is fraying because of it.  
            You see we believe that “No excluding” is not just a playground rule. Nor is it simply giving in to the pressures of secular culture or politics. In passages like this we see that it is fundamental to the mission of the church from its earliest days. And it goes hand in hand with our great commission and commandment from Jesus, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That will be the thing that distinguishes us as his disciples: the love that we have and show to each other. This is not a qualified love, it is not a conditional love, nor is it a cheap love. It is a love of effort and commitment for it takes effort and commitment to be inclusive, to not draw lines between “us and them.” When you erase boundaries, the critique is that you are losing the substance; that you become so flexible that you lose your spine. But this is the spine! This is the identity! This is the substance of our faith. A love so capacious it extends to all who would open their hearts to it. A love that was revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. If anyone asks, this is what we stand for. This is who we are. This is the criteria by which we judge ourselves and we believe our God judges us.
            Make no mistake, the Episcopal Church is not boundary-less, it’s just that we are willing to remake our boundaries in the name of a fuller, more complete surrender to God in Jesus Christ. Who is not yet included in the Kingdom of God we are trying to build up? How can we introduce them to the good news of God in Christ and invite them to give their lives to following and worshipping that God? Who are we excluding? These are important questions. These are Biblical questions. And they speak of an understanding of our faith which holds paramount the power of God to make all things new—again, and again. Us. Our neighbors. Our church. Our world. We carry with us all the wisdom of the past two thousand years and we use it to inform how we understand God to be doing a new thing in our world today. As a Church we are inclusive because to be exclusive is to overstate our capacity to know the full mystery of God. It is to be content to rest on our understanding and not on the creative power of the Spirit. Inclusion means being open to a new thing, a new person, a new understanding. Inclusion means our work is not yet finished. Inclusion means God’s work is not yet finished.
            The problem is that listening to the Spirit to discern what that new thing is, can be hard to do. And it can easily be confused with listening to the loudest voice in the room, or listening to the prevailing cultural trends, or listening to that which makes us feel good. That’s why we don’t just run off after the Spirit on our own. When we feel that the Spirit is calling us to go into some new territory, to include people we hadn’t before, first we pray, individually, collectively, and then we discuss, locally, nationally. And then we sift through the wisdom of our tradition—primarily the Bible but also the teachings of the Church—to ground ourselves and understand whether we will be moving too far from the established truths we hold so central, or whether we will actually be living into those truths more fully. This will by no means eliminate disagreement but it is an essential process in which we seek and listen for the Spirit of God active and alive in our midst. Like Peter, we are to find God’s vision for the world in prayer, but we also have to answer to a community.
            The really hard part is that when we are that open to the movement of the Spirit, when we are open to God leading us into new frontiers in the name of expanding the gift he has given to all of us, we are liable to end up in some places we did not expect to go. We are liable to be led into territory that is unfamiliar and unsettling for us.  We may, like Peter, end up in households of those who before, were our enemies, breaking laws and customs along the way.

            This kind of openness to the Spirit is scary to people, even, or maybe especially, to church people. We like to control things, and the Spirit is, by its very nature uncontrollable. To put ourselves at its mercy is to be vulnerable, it is to be corrected. No one likes to be vulnerable, or corrected. So this posture of inclusivity, of opening our church doors in invitation, of claiming that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes you!” regardless of who that “you” is, leads to us being ostracized and criticized by our brothers and sisters in Christ; of having our commitment to the Bible challenged; of having our commitment to tradition challenged; to having people leave our church because they are made uncomfortable by this posture of openness. We have suffered all these consequences recently. But I hope you will join me in the conviction and dare I say, pride in this identity of inclusivity. Know that no matter what others may say to you, it is grounded in Biblical passages like we hear today not in the cultural shifts and changing norms of history. Know that we believe with unshakeable conviction in a God who commands us to love one another without restriction or restraint, and that God shows no partiality. Know that we are not to hinder God but instead, we are to stand up with confidence and shout to all who can hear “No Excluding!” for that is what we believe it means to be a Church, and to be a Christian.

Friday, April 15, 2016

considering Ananias

This morning at the Eucharist, we read the story of the conversion of Saul/Paul as told in Acts 9. We had already heard it Sunday morning, though the verses selected were slightly different. Not for the first time, I heard it and wondered about Ananias. How on earth did he have the courage to seek out someone who had come to Damascus with the express purpose of throwing him and his companions in Christ in jail? The depth of his trust in God is truly breathtaking. I want that, too.

Now, it's not that he asks no questions. He does. I don't believe for a moment that God minds our asking questions, even if it's an initial, "Seriously?" So Ananias has his own version of "Really???" in response to his vision of Jesus: 
But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. (Acts 9:13-15)
I recall reading a sermon that pointed out that God doesn't answer Ananias' questioning by telling him he will be safe. God just tells him to go. And so he does.

I wonder if his friends and family were there when he decided to set off to the street called Straight to find their declared enemy and heal him. I can't imagine they would encourage him. If they knew, chances are they were terrified both for him and for themselves.

As it turns out, I have the Noon Office reading for this week, and so this morning I needed to find a non-scriptural reading to accompany the scripture reading. Naturally, I did what any good nun would do: Googled "the courage of Ananias." I'd like to share with you what I found to read in chapel.

For years, the vivid memories of my first encounter with this week's text led me to believe I had a handle on the story. But everything changed the day a seminary classmate preached a sermon in which she wondered aloud about Ananias's role in Saul's conversion…I'm not sure if Ananias was completely omitted from the Bible school experience of my childhood or if his role in the story--with its lack of flashing lights--simply failed to grab my attention. Either way, I missed Ananias altogether, which is a shame….

Ananias deserves our consideration. Though it's understandable that his role is overshadowed by Saul's overall story, he is to be commended for acting out of obedience in the face of fear. When Ananias gives voice to his trepidation, he also reveals that he has heard of Saul through the grapevine. Even if Ananias's fears are well founded, we might imagine that they are magnified by the rumor mill.

And yet--Ananias chooses to trust that his assessment of Saul as dangerous is outweighed by God's choice to use Saul to bring God's name "before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel." Ananias believes God. When he meets Saul face to face, he doesn't scout out the situation or test the validity of Saul's repentance. Ananias greets him as "Brother Saul," and Saul's sight is restored; the scales fall from Saul's eyes.

Each day… I hear on the radio the stories of those who struggle to live: brothers and sisters who face the daily threats of gun violence, poverty, and systemic abuse. I hear the stories of people the world over who are persecuted because of their race, ethnicity, gender, the people they choose to love, or the way in which they experience God. I am haunted…by the stories of so many… who have been forced from their homes. Alongside these heartbreaking stories, I also hear a narrative that points to a terrifying pattern. When we are at our worst, we allow our fears, real or imagined, to trump God's call to be in relationship with those who suffer. Now is the time to take a cue from Ananias. Believe God. And call the storytellers by the only names that fit: sister, brother, family, child of God. Perhaps when we no longer allow our fears to stand in the way of the reconciling work of God, the scales will fall from our eyes, too.       
You can read the full sermon from which this is taken here: The courage of Ananias: Austin Crenshaw Shelley's lectionary e-mail from Monday | The Christian Century

May God give us, too, the grace to put aside our fear and live in a deeper trust. As Jesus said, "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10:28) May God help us to know more fully that Christ is risen and that this is all the safety we need.