As you can see, I don't really update this all that often anymore. I still post sermons, but now they can be found here: http://stpaulsmarfa.org/
Peace be with you.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
In today’s epistle we hear Paul’s iconic line about “being all things to all people.” Concerning his strategy for sharing the good news of Christ, he says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win them… And to those outside the law (meaning everyone else) I became as they are. I became all things to all people, so that I might share the gospel’s blessings.” From this we can conclude that Paul experienced something powerful that he saw as worth sharing… and that he believes context matters. For he took steps to reach out to people in ways they would understand… unique to their concerns.
Taking our inspiration from Paul, we are challenged to go and do likewise—to find evidence of that same transformative and reshaping presence of Christ in our own lives, then share that with others in ways that actually connect with what people care about… with the lived challenges people face. So today I'd like for us to take a look at our context, so we can respond with faithfulness.
Now, there are many ways one could approach this topic, for context has many layers. We could talk about class, gender, geography, race, and more… But, for today’s purposes, I’d like to zero in on just what it means for us to carry the gospel of Christ out into a world filled with so many other Christian denominations and religious traditions. For, in my experience, navigating the sheer number of faiths out there is one of the most common hurdles holding people back from getting more deeply involved with a faith community. And this makes sense because never before have people lived amidst such a wash of creeds, philosophies, and faiths. And all of this lends today’s moment in history a unique and exciting flavor… But also it presents some new and formidable challenges.
This wash of choices extends far beyond matters of faith… for think of how complicated a trip to the grocery market can now be. Some stores carry over 150 types of salsa! There’s a psychologist by the name of Barry Schwartz who studies the effect all these choices have on our thinking… and I’d like to share some of his findings, because I see them as relevant to understanding today’s context. As an illustration of our predicament, Barry likes to show a cartoon depicting a mother goldfish in a fishbowl with her baby goldfish. And realizing that her baby is growing up, the mother says, “Now that you’re getting bigger, I want you to know the world is your oyster. You can go anywhere you want or do anything you want to do.” The irony of course is that, inside the fishbowl, they’re trapped and actually rather limited.
This, however, is not so for us! For as Barry points out, our fishbowl has been shattered! Never before has humanity had so much access to so many products or possibilities. The world truly is our oyster! And this is something that conventional wisdom celebrates, but Barry sees as actually detrimental. He claims when people are given more choices, we often respond by freezing up; as if we’re waiting to understand all our options before making a decision. He cites a study that shows how employees at companies with fewer retirement plan options actually make use of their benefits, while those with more possibilities put off enrolling and wind up losing out. Barry calls this phenomenon “choice paralysis…” And I can’t help but wonder if this somehow plays into the landscape of today’s religious trends.
Even when we do finally make a decision… we’re less satisfied with it. Barry tells a story of how he went to buy some blue jeans and the clerk asked, “Well, do you want straight fit, relaxed fit, skinny fit, boot cut, stone-washed, acid-washed, button fly, zipper fly, and on and on he went…” After all this, feeling dazed by the myriad of choices, Barry responded, “I just want the kind of jeans that used to be the only kind you could get!”
That day he left with the best fitting pair of jeans in his life… But he says he also felt less satisfied with his purchase! He explains that with so many customizations and possibilities, his expectations had been raised… and he wanted nothing less than absolute perfection! And while his new jeans were great… they still could have been better…
This is our context—a shattered fishbowl—a world of daunting possibilities that are ultimately unsatisfying… if we don’t narrow our focus! And this… is the mission field that we live in and are called to serve. We’ve all heard the statistics about how fewer people are involved today in churches and faith communities. And as insiders, we’ve even felt some of the anxiety surrounding this. But, at the same time, how many of you know someone who is genuinely hungry to encounter something transcendent and life changing… and life giving... and yet they hesitate to act… and avail themselves to what God has for them? Like a college freshman who has yet to declare their major, we wonder spiritually without direction...
But, in the story of the church at Corinth, we find hope… For today’s words about “being all things to all people” – which I see as about knowing our context and responding according – these words were not spun in a vacuum. For Corinth knew struggle. They had known conflict. And one could even say that it was precisely in those hardships that they acquired their deeper knowledge of God.
Remember in last Sunday’s epistle we heard that there had been an ongoing controversy about whether or not it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Remember some in the community, those from Jewish backgrounds, were okay with it. Because from their perspective, since the meat was offered to gods that didn’t exist, it was fine… and not tainted. But, for many of the Gentiles who’d grown up worshiping those gods, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t sit well with them, now that they followed Jesus.
So, in steps Paul, who reminds them that, as members of one unified body, whenever matters should arise that threaten their harmony, their first allegiance was to one another. For Christ calls us to lay down our wants and wills for the good of another—just as Christ modeled for us and did for us.
Here I see the age old lesson “be careful for what we wish for.” Because, if we truly want to encounter God, we should be forewarned that change will be required us. For change is the currency of transformation... For those of us wondering how we can share stories of our faith with others, we need only to look back as far as the last time God called us to change… and to share that experience.
You see, Corinth’s real lesson for us today, and for our surrounding culture, is that knowing and encountering God happens in committed community… and not when roaming around like so many spiritual Lone Rangers. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but church life is messy… But it’s in that mess that we most encounter ourselves, our brokenness, and become awakened to those places that we most need to invite God into.
And so I see the antidote for today’s cascading choices and hunts for perfection is commitment… and the acceptance that God doesn’t need perfection to work in our lives… God only needs willing hearts. Hearts that will bind themselves together in a world of Lone Ranger pilgrims. Or as Barry Schwartz’s puts it, “we need to put ourselves back in the fishbowl… willfully.” For by spreading ourselves a mile wide and an inch deep we avoid the possibility of encountering anything of great depth.
In Paul’s context, he found it necessary to “be all things to all people.” But in ours, perhaps the greatest gift we can give this world is the example of our willingness to persevere together, in spite of all the possibilities, our imperfections… and messiness, and even our limitations… Our commitment to each other and the God made known in Christ can stand like a beacon in this world… for there is a hunger for depth that only dedication can satisfy. And like our Christ who poured himself out for this world, we are called to give ourselves over more fully to God and each other with each passing day.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2014, following a live nativity performance.
Much like all the characters in the story we just witnessed – the wise men, the shepherds, and even the unruly animals present on this holiest of nights – we too have been drawn to one place by a light – the birth of Christ Jesus, the Light of this World. We too have, in some way, been magnetically pulled in to witness the mystery that lies at the center of this drama. And just as the original cast came together, each with their own unique concerns, so too do we who are gathered here this evening have our own reasons for coming… We come for the hope and transformation that’s found in the birth of God-with-us!
But, none of us can fully understand our need for this hope OR the significance of Christ’s birth, unless we first pause to hear the rest of this story we’ve just witnessed. For, yes, it is true that there is a cuteness and familiarity to the first Christmas—with all its angels, and swaddling, and cuddly barnyard animals—but… there also was a harsher side to the world into which Christ was born.
For, much like the world we know, it too had real people, who experienced real pain and struggles. And they also had to contend with violence, corruption, and prejudice. And we catch glimmers of this when noticing just why it was that Jesus’ family was traveling to Bethlehem in the first place. For Jesus’ people were being taxed and controlled against their will by Rome’s invading armies! And so, as is true of much of human history, we see that the setting of this first Christmas was neither serene nor without its challenges.
But it was into this darkness that Christ’s light first beamed! And, I think, knowing of these struggles can help us understand why the Magi, shepherds, and even the animals sought refuge in Christ’s light… and maybe a little about why we too draw near. Maybe we can even see some of ourselves in the concerns of these characters... For instance, I envision the Magi as society’s “successful people” – those who commanded respect… maybe rode the Lexus of camels, if you will... They suffered no want for food or fear of being thrown to the streets. But… they also would have been familiar with the emptiness of mere outward success.
As Jim Carrey, the famous actor is quoted to have said, “I wish everyone could get rich, famous, and have everything they’ve ever dreamed of… so they would know that it’s not the answer.” The Magi would have understood this… for they were intimately familiar with their own still lingering hungers for fulfillment – for the desire to connect with others… and ultimately.. God. And so the Magi ventured out, following the promise of this mysterious light.
Next came the shepherds—our story’s blue-collared heroes. They worked hard, thankless jobs that still left them teetering on the brink of ruin. They knew, first-hand, the stresses of living in this broken and sometimes brutal world… of having to sacrifice luxuries (or maybe even meals), so their children could receive medical care. The shepherds are they who hunger for relief… and for justice in this world. And so the shepherds, at the angel’s bidding, also set out to follow this promising, yet mysterious light.
And lest we forget the animals, who remind us of all the other creatures we share this planet with, we see them too draw near. For they represent our struggling environment, damaged by human excesses… and from them we hear cries for temperance and God’s restoration.
The truth is, on any given day, we can find ourselves identifying with any or all of these characters—the Magi, shepherds, or the sheep—but with Christ and his birth into this world, we find all our longings simultaneously gathered together and fulfilled. For Jesus is our long-awaited salvation and hope! He lies at the source of this light and satiates our every need! And the clues have been there… right in front of us.. all along… for we find Jesus, this little baby, not-so-subtly laying in a feeding trough!
As if saying to us, “I’ve only ever come into this world to be consumed! Not looked at, admired, or enjoyed from a safe distance… but to be taken in, digested, and to become part of each one of you!” Tonight we encounter this truth at the source of this light that’s drawn us all together. And in this mystery of a God who came to be with us as one of us, our prayers for wholeness and healing are answered, as are our hopes for true communion with each other AND peace for this world!
Tonight we see that, despite our various situations, Jesus is the hope that meets us where we are! He comes to us despite our world’s condition. He is the light that dispels darkness… by laying down his life for ours.
And we then are challenged to go and do likewise… to be this for others. We are drawn together so that we can be sent out.
And when we go… when we do so… when we take those steps—like the magi, shepherds, and even beasts who went before us—we discover that God’s mystery and promise will be there burning brightly within each one of us… to faithfully light our steps along the way!
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Come gather in the woods of Austin's Greenbelt at nightfall for a solemn, yet celebratory remembrance of saints past and present. There will be Holy Eucharist, Poetry, and Music by Local Artists.
Stay afterwards for HOME BREWED BEER & Soul Cakes!
Look for us On the Meditation Trail at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, 2128 Barton Hills Drive, Austin, Texas 78704
Stay afterwards for HOME BREWED BEER & Soul Cakes!
Look for us On the Meditation Trail at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, 2128 Barton Hills Drive, Austin, Texas 78704
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
|Julius von Bismarck|
Many Christians and people who grow up in a predominately Christian culture learn from a young age to associate suffering and tragedy with sin. While these things can be related, they often aren't. Views linking sin and suffering are popularized each time a natural disaster occurs and some religious figure goes on TV blaming [enter fashionable vilified sin here]. Naturally, such teachings predispose people to look for someone or something to blame, whenever things go wrong. After all, “Someone must have done something to deserve this.” But occasionally, even for those with this mindset, the magnitude or seeming-randomness of a tragedy is so great that we are left to blindly grapple for ways of making sense of things. In such instances, it’s not uncommon for people to conclude that God allowed a hardship for purposes unseen or to teach some kind of lesson. Such cosmological/theological postulations have always bothered me, striking me as cruel, if true, but, more likely, as nonsensical and possibly “magical” thinking. What’s more, as a hospital chaplain and intern at a local parish, I’ve learned that many others share these struggles.
|Julius von Bismarck|
Over the years, I have tried sorting through these matters, in hopes of making sense of how the world really works (and I still am!). I have taken notice of all the connected implications necessary for holding together a world view in which God directly authors such calamities. An example of this is, “how or whether God intervenes in the day-to-day affairs of our world and lives?” Also, “if God does intervene, how often and in what ways and for what reasons?” Making sense of such questions and how they relate to our overall conceptualization of God, creation, and what it means to be human, are at the very core of any discussion about the nature of suffering and evil. In his book, Raging with Compassion, theologian John Swinton wrestles with our framing of these perennial questions, as he seeks to formulate both a theologically orthodox and practically-based understanding of how humans experience suffering. He begins by posing the following thoughts, which I will use as spring board for my own exploration: “Life is not fully comprehensible, controllable, or fixable. We constantly find ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, forced to live with unanswered questions. Where is God when it hurts?”
|Julius von Bismarck|
When religious figures attribute blame to specific causes of their conjuring, they never do so in a vacuum. They do so from a perspective shaped by their own theological views and socially-derived perspective. For instance, a stereotypically liberal pastor might cite our nation’s involvement in a war or unjust economic practices as the underlying culprit, while their conservative counterpart might blame abortion or homosexuality. The philosophical trend of post-modernism has done wonders for increasing our capacity to critically self-reflect, resulting in the raising of our own awareness of the biases/assumptions we hold. At the heart of these attempts to assign blame lie our desires to uncover meaning and re-establish a sense of control. We think, “If I can just pinpoint what happened here, I can prevent it from happening to me (or repeating).” But as Swinton points out with the example of his neighbors’ eleven-year-old daughter, who suddenly and unexplainably dropped dead one afternoon on her way home from playing with friends, it is impossible to anticipate, make sense of, or assign blame with some tragedies. Cases like these (and any number of other cruel happenings) are what inspire the so-called question of “Theodicy.” Theodicy refers to the problem of why a good and loving God, who is all-powerful, allows evil in the world. Or as David Hume so eloquently puts it:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then God is impotent. Is God able to prevent evil, but now willing? Then God is malevolent. Is God both willing and able to prevent evil? Then why is there any evil in the world.”
Swinton’s response to theodicy is to question our framing of things. He asserts that our present approach to such matters stem from post-Enlightenment assumptions of humanity’s ever ascending progress and its penchant for analyzing and breaking down problems, resulting in a world demystified. In other words, our current perception that all problems are solvable (which he points out have only been reinforced be modern medical advances), leads us to conclude that all suffering, in and of itself, is evil that should be eradicated, whenever possible. In times prior to the Enlightenment, Swinton says suffering was largely an accepted part of life, albeit no less painful. Rather than seeing it as a, “metaphysical problem needing a solution, [suffering was seen as] a practical challenge requiring a response.” The relatively recent shift towards seeing suffering as surmountable has, according to Swinton, resulted in today’s philosophical conundrum of theodicy. Here, Swinton makes his most profound point, arguing that, “Theodicy should not be understood as a series of disembodied arguments designed to defend God’s love, goodness, and power.” He sees modern, philosophical endeavors that engage these matters as guilty of mistakenly conjuring an “ahistorical, “free-floating,” abstracted notion of god.  Rather than conceiving of God as a specific entity, made known in the Christian religion, philosophers view God as an ontological challenge to be proven or disproven. Swinton’s point is significant because theodical endeavors necessarily involve cosmological concerns like the nature of evil and purpose of creation.
Such connections become apparent when pondering specific tragedies, such as when a person is diagnosed with cancer or the aftermath of a hurricane. Traditionally, theologians speak of such destructive events by labeling them as “evils.” Classical theology then divides evils into two categories: moral evils, which are caused by human action or inaction and natural evils, which have nothing to do with humans, but happen as byproducts of the world simply being as it is. In recent decades, making such distinctions has become ever more complex and blurred, as advances in science and medicine are taken into consideration. For instance, if a chronically depressed person suffering from a significant chemical imbalance commits suicide, was this a manifestation of moral evil or natural evil? Because so many problems can now be traced back to physiological factors, categorizing such occurrences can be tricky. Swinton’s response is to question the helpfulness of making such distinctions. Instead, he calls us to reconsider the relatively recent notion that all suffering is evil.
Importantly, Swinton reminds us of the classical Christian understanding that sees creation and the whole of existence as created, sustained, and loved by God. The brokenness of this world, which we experience as sin, tragedy, and suffering, are seen as unintended and therefore in need of fixing. Because God is loving and non-derelict Creator, Christians trust that God is reconciling the world back into wholeness, in accordance with God’s goodness and loving nature. Herein lays the key to Christian hopefulness about the future—our sense, which if firmly tethered in scripture, that creation will one day be restored to its fullness. From this foundation, Swinton suggests that, although “Suffering is always tragic,” it needn’t necessarily always be considered evil.
While some tragedies wrought by sinful wrongdoing can be labeled “evil” (think shooter at Virginia Tech, for instance), it’s much harder for many people today to call the shifting of tectonic plates (aka. an earthquake) evil. Seen in this light, such events, which often cause destruction and suffering on mass scales, are more accurately attributable to natural, scientifically understood processes. Similarly, when an elderly person dies from the natural, physical degeneration that takes place over time or a young woman experiences a miscarriage, such events, while not any less painful, are natural occurrences and therefore not evil. As such, for one to scrutinize these types of events expecting to uncover sin or wrongdoing as an underlying cause is to participate in a hunt for that which is not there (and potentially abuse the subject of such scrutiny). Now that I have accounted for what evil is not, let us move to consider what evil is.
Swinton argues that natural events like earthquakes or even sudden, unexplainable, but medically possible deaths, while not inherently evil, can become so, if they evoke an insurmountable wedge between those suffering and their sense of meaning and hope. For Christians, meaning and hope come from their relationship with God, so experiences that take us from our ability to know God’s providential care and who we are as beloved creatures are evil. To illustrate this, Swinton recalls a story of a 24 year-old woman who committed suicide after having endured a lifetime of sexual abuse by her father and brother. The abuse she suffered resulted in her inability to see herself as a person of worth, dignity, or hope. Similarly, in cases where religious leaders scrutinize a person going through a painful, but natural hardship, when their efforts ultimately push that person away from their faith, one could view their interventions as evil. (Having experienced this firsthand and having met several patients through my work as a hospital chaplain who have undergone similar experiences, I can attest to the potential damage such theological views can inflict). The question remains then, “How, in such cases of natural suffering, can we make sense of such events, while leaving room for a God who still loves and providentially cares for this world?”
|echoes of Job?|
To begin to answer this, we must return to a foundational tenet of the Christian religion, which claims that the whole of creation is a product (or emanation) of God’s creative and boundless love. If we believe that God brought the cosmos into being, from nothing (ex nihilo), then everything exists by God’s will—even those parts that would be easy to overlook. Christians describe God’s love as principally within God, between the Three Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Love, in this sense, is a mutual gifting/sharing of generative power. This love, therefore, is inherently relational in nature and applies to God’s relationship with creation. Similarly, as beings created in God’s image, we have a choice in whether or not to reciprocate God’s love. For us to have this capacity, an inbuilt vulnerability must exist within created order. We are free to reject God, after all. This vulnerability, when considered alongside the notion that humans are spiritual beings (made in God’s image), reveals the presence of a certain frailty and finitude that we exist within. Or as Swinton puts it, “Creation is fragile because it is underpinned by divine love.”
If we accept the above narrative and descriptions of evil and suffering, then our response becomes what is important. Swinton contends, “The problem with evil is not so much its existence, as our response to its existence.” Furthermore, if we recognize that one can be party to evil, without knowingly participating (such as purchasing something derived by exploitative or ill-gotten means), then it becomes ones duty to try and root out such evils from one’s life. In other words, our response, as Christians, should be to resist evil in both its personal and systemic forms. When considering how to respond to suffering not caused by evil, we return to Swinton’s effort to ground the theodical conversation in particularity, namely the Christian conception of God. To do so, we look to God’s most visible revelation as seen in the person of Jesus Christ for illumination. In Christ we find countless examples of standing against evil, in his bearing witness against injustices, his gift of presence with the suffering, and, ultimately, in his death on the cross. Jesus’ love was demonstrable, gratuitous, and undiscriminating. In his life, message, and deeds, we find a selfless giving, grounded in compassion and concern for the other. As followers of Christ, we see that even in cases of natural suffering, we are to respond with compassion, to strengthen such persons against loss of hope or meaning.
On the whole, Swinton’s response that we have misconstrued the whole theodical enterprise rings true enough, as I appreciate the room he leaves for mystery. The temptation to analyze and pin down every facet of the Universe is truly great, especially when involving something we perceive as a threat, but such endeavors are likely to prove disappointing in the end. For this reason, I concur with Swinton’s pragmatic, “What matters, is our response” outlook. Such a perspective does justice to the calling of Christians to live faithfully, without regard for our chances for success. In this sense, and after the likeness of our head, Christ Jesus, the Church, as a whole, is called to martyrdom. By this I mean we are to give our lives or give (gift) with our lives, rather than having them taken. As such, we should ask, “What beauty and moments thereof can we help to create/participate in?” Rather than acting in self-protective ways, pointing to the failures of others as a means for making ourselves feel safe and in control, we ought to live with aims of glorifying the One who makes all things possible. In this way, we can act with redemptive congruence to God’s own actions, helping to bring others into our story of hope and restorative healing.
 Swinton, John. Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 3.
 Ibid, 9-10.
 David Hume, “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1947), 66.
 John Swinton, Raging with Compassion, 32-33.
 Ibid, 39.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 40-41.
 Ibid, 50-51.
 Ibid, 52.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 52.
 Ibid, 59-60.
 Ibid, 61.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ibid, 48.
 Ibid, 67-68.