Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Risky Family Business

Sermon from College for Bishops "Living our Vows" Residency

Richmond, VA

June 2017 

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Faith and Culture- June 2017 Diolog

Faith and Culture

A missional church is forever pondering how we engage with, reject, immerse, or flee from the cultural context in which we find ourselves. We believe that God is reconciling the world to God’s Self and that we are active participants in God’s mission. This realization forces us to wrestle with how we most appropriately envision and engage the world around us.  

Certainly, the Episcopal Church, like the worldwide Anglican Communion, has varied opinions on the matter. Perhaps no theologian, historian, or cultural exegete has influenced Episcopal clergy more than H. Richard Niebuhr is his seminal work, Christ and Culture (Harper & Row, 1975). The book has long been considered a historical, literary, and religious masterpiece as it surveys over one-and-a-half millennia of Christian history in an attempt to understand the different ways that Christians have pondered God’s mission and it’s relation to culture. Any student of history or literature would love the book.

Niebuhr begins with, “Belief in [Christ Jesus] and loyalty to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God to world” (29). He defines culture as a combination of “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (32).  Niebuhr then offers different ways in which Christians have gone about engaging the culture around them in an effort to be faithful to God’s mission.

The first he calls Christ Against Culture. In this model, an immovable wall separates the Christian community and the surrounding culture. Historical figures who exemplified this position include Tertullian, Leo Tolstoy, the Mennonites, and many of the earliest monastic traditions. Niebuhr is quick to critique this perspective because of its failure to honestly face the impact and fluidity that culture plays in the life of Christian community. It is also prone to legalism, scapegoats culture, and misses out on God’s interventions within human history, and thus within culture.

The second model he offers is Christ of Culture. In this view, Jesus is immersed in culture as a great wisdom teacher. The vocation of the Christian community is to take Jesus’ place as such within the wider culture. Jesus is seen as “the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace” (92). This view lends itself to a civic-oriented God who is identified with the goals and objectives of the state. Niebuhr cites the ancient Gnostics, Abelard, Albrecht Ritschl, and much of Protestant liberalism as falling in this typology. However, there is a problem with this perspective in Niebuhr’s view. Namely, Jesus is quickly coopted by the culture and the church quickly succumbs to idolatry (110).

We then arrive at Christ Above Culture. Niebuhr delineates between two postures within this one perspective. Some thinkers, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, focused on reason, redemption, and nature. Others, such as Martin Luther and Sören Kierkegaard, emphasized revelation, redemption, and grace. Niebuhr rightly saw the manner in which this model easily fell into unnecessary dualisms, not to mention a passive acceptance of the culture, which Christ was seen as being somewhat removed from.

Niebuhr’s last foray into the subject is Christ the Transformer of Culture. Here God is clearly seen as being above culture: judging, acting, and moving to transform people, culture, and the world. Theologians like John Calvin and F. D. Maurice represent this position. Creation is broken, but God is moving within culture to redeem and make all things new.

My brief synopsis does not do Niebuhr’s text justice. My hope is simply to bring to light the different lenses by which we are prone to see and thus engage the culture around us. With respect to the question of which model is most faithful to God’s mission, Niebuhr rejects the idea of a “Christian answer.” He even says that all of our missionary efforts are in the end “fragmentary.” (236) I suspect that Niebuhr is right, and I wonder about how different contexts influenced the different ways people saw and engaged the world. It is with this thought in mind that I wish to ponder the context in which we find ourselves right now.

I believe that we are still coming out of a great age of Christianity called “Christendom.” Modernity is giving way to postmodernity, where the institutional church is no longer the center of the culture. We are in an environment that the institution has not faced in recent memory. Our current systems, forms, knowledge, and tools are inadequate for our context. Furthermore, choosing just one of Niebuhr’s models will not help us be faithful to Christ’s mission in this new and foreign environment.

We live in a world where Christianity is seen as simply another brand in a long line of religions and political perspectives where both “truth” and “alternative facts” are produced. Indeed, in our context “anything goes” because all macro-narratives that seek to capture the fullness of reality are rejected the moment they make such a claim. Many experience our world as fragmented, and I fear that we may need to fall deeper into volatility and uncertainty before hitting the metaphorical bottom.

Yet, we know that God calls us to engage the world. Like fisher folk standing at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Lord urging us back into the mission field, we are not sure where the journey and walk with Jesus will take us. We are unclear what sacrifices will be asked of us. It is from this place of genuine puzzlement that we stand and survey the world around us. We know that God in Christ Jesus has invited us to partner with Him in mission, and so we take our first brave and courageous steps from this unknown place where the future is uncertain.

As we engage the world around us we can be certain that we will find all kinds of hate, fear, brokenness, depravity, greed, and every manner of sin. But we will find joy, too. We will find love. We will find people to share our hope with and people who will give us hope. We will find that our God is with us and we will see mighty and miraculous deeds done by God and in God’s name.

At the end of the day, faithfulness to God’s mission is not about choosing the right model for engaging the culture. It is about being the right sort of missionary, people willing to risk getting it wrong time and time again because we love the messy journey of partnering with God in mission as we engage the world that Christ is critiquing, immersed in, above, transforming, and above all else saving all at the same time. 

The June Issue of the Diolog is available to read here. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Expanding and Contracting Church Mission

Pentecost Sermon, June 4, 2017 

St. David's, Austin

Grace, Georgetown 

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Good Shepherd and His Gate, Sermon from May 7, 2017

The Good Shepherd and His Gate
May 7, 2017
Good Shepherd, Austin
St. James’, Austin

Heavenly Father, I humbly beseech you as I offer these words this morning, to see before you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock and a sinner of your own redeeming. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The day in which in all of Christendom, Episcopal and denominational churches everywhere set aside the lessons and the readings in our Scripture to dwell on the image of the Good Shepherd. And so for me, at the beginning of the week, as I started to think about my words this morning, it immediately conjured up the image of the first church that I remember, certainly not my first church, but the first church that I remember as a child. My father was an Episcopal priest and so I grew up in the Episcopal Church and the church was The Good Shepherd Church in The Heights, this is where my father served. And I think part of that is that on Saturdays, when my dad would go up to get the church ready for services the next day, and I have a sneaking suspicion he was probably working on his sermon at the last minute, but I would have free rein of the church. And so my dad would go into his study and begin to do his work, whatever that work was, and I could walk around and go wherever I wanted. But I remember many times as a six-year-old making out my way into the nave, into the center of the church in the center aisle, and looking at the back wall which had this massive stained glass window of the Good Shepherd in it, and just the beauty, just the beauty of the light coming through that into a dark nave, a dark church. And so, when I think about these lessons, it is a very warm childhood memory that is evoked. That touches my heart. That reminds me of a loving and caring shepherd, a savior who embraces around his shoulders the sweet lost lamb, that one that he went after. And what I recognize, of course, is that like any childhood memory I am of course taking, collapsing all of the gospel images of the Good Shepherd into my memory of the Good Shepherd. That they don't all exactly exist there in that same space, but in my memory, they do and what I want to say is that then I grew up. And I grew up and certainly didn't imagine that I would become a minister, but that happened and I went to seminary in order to learn very important things. Specifically, things about this parable stand out, the first being that shepherds were smelly people. That you have to understand the context in the life of a shepherd in order to break open this image of the Good Shepherd and that they were smelly people because sheep are smelly and that they live outside. And that certainly stuck in my mind, but also that in some way, shepherds were a common reference in the scriptures for religious leaders. And that bad shepherds, especially in the New Testament because there are a number of bad shepherds, were poor examples of faith and statesmanship, and that those are woven into the conversation that is happening in today's scripture. I also learned of the ecclesiastical or institutional church layer of apostleship, of the episcopacy of the bishop as a shepherd, with the shepherd's crook, the shepherd's staff, that the bishop carries.

Then there is Psalm 23, which most Christians might remember some portion of. And how Psalm 23 is really about God's deliverance of Israel being led into the Promised Land out of the Valley of Death and slavery, and how Christians have now interpolated that to speak to us of Heaven. And that's why this is so often used at our funerals services and our memorial services. And, of course, the Great I Am, the Good Shepherd, is the fourth in the seven different "I Am" statements. And lastly, that the Christians didn't invent the Good Shepherd, but, rather, it is a Greek notion of Kriophoros, the ram-bearer. The one who bears the lamb to the sacrifice. And what I can tell by looking at you is you are about as bored as that is boring, to go through that long list, and that we should name it. But then I come to this point. Right? Where the reality is that my childhood fascination with that good shepherd window and all of the jumbled gospel narrative gets mixed up in that deep theology, which does a good job of bearing all the very best stuff from the scripture, and as I was pondering all of this, I came upon this quote by an Episcopal priest and scholar, Robert Farrar Capon, and I felt as though he was talking about me and all of that theology when he says, "I don't like it." He says, "It is as if you have recently discovered two wonderful stimulants namely theology and white wine, and they have-- and that you have gone slightly ga-ga over both of them. True enough," he writes, "both thinking and drinking are delightful projects, with which to grace afternoon and enliven an evening, but as one who has kept a wine cellar since 1953, and a theology addict since well before that, I assure you," Capon says, "that neither of these repositories of my hopes ever quite delivered what I expected of them in my first enthusiasms." So, let us set aside for a moment everything that I and you have brought in this morning to our Good Shepherd story. And let us come to it again as Marcus Borg once said, let us take a look at it again as if for the first time. I think when we do that, what we find then is that there is great truth in these parables, in these sayings of Jesus that are closer to, if not nestled deep within the actual childhood understanding of the Good Shepherd but in a deep and powerful and terrible way. God and Christ Jesus stands as shepherd in our lives in a single solitary space as the gate, says John's Gospel. Upon the cross the Good Shepherd stands in our lives unmovable in good times and in bad. Its shadow no matter where we go always touches the hems of our garments no matter what we are undertaking. God's cross on Calvary, is the gate that opens to us in our green pastures and still waters and in our darkest valleys amidst of our enemies, heaven and God’s embrace.

God, as the Good Shepherd, Christ upon his cross is our rod and our staff. It is that which bridges Heaven and earth, God, and humanity. As Capon says, the content of theology is this fact of the cross and resurrection. I say the content of faith is this trust. 

What I have learned in the many years is that the world is filled with many other gates, many other sheepfolds and other shepherds and other ways, all of them promising deliverance in exchange for doing things. Jesus though, as gate and shepherd in his act of crucifixion and God's act of resurrection has put an end to all forms of religious exchange that promise you God's love if you will but behave. If you believe that doing the right things, thinking the right things, acting the right way, voting the right way, being the right person, all of that does not get you God's love and God's embrace. That is the truth of the God who stands as Shepherd at the gate. Being good and God will love you is a phrase that does not work on the Christian who holds the cross at the heart of their faith. No correct actions, speech, code of conduct is required at the foot of the cross on Calvary. No lightly bouqueted, religion chilled to our liking. It is free and it cannot be earned by you or by me. It is a single offering of God's love for us. The Good Shepherd, the God Shepherd on his cross has signaled the end to earning God's love and has opened for all creation a way to the other side where death has no victory, politics have no victory, and religion has no victory. The gate has been flung wide open, and it is held there by the foot of the cross. And you and I are free to enter. No matter by way of going the frequently-traveled or less-traveled road, no matter how we arrive, the high road or the low road. Regardless of arriving in good form and bad, we arrive, all of us. When the day is done and the last breath breathed, all of us arrive at the gate. And there, to quote Capon once more, is the "terrible goodness of it all" for everybody. And we will find ourselves safe in the power of God's resurrection. For He is the Good Shepherd, and He beckons us with His voice to come in, for all who come to Him shall be led and shall cross over into God's green pastures.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Let's Open Up Our Minds

St. Alban's, Austin 

St. Julian of Norwich, Round Rock 

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball