Sunday, June 17, 2012

Marcus Borg in Christian Formation and Education

I have a warning for you before I start. Have you ever turned on your television in the morning, maybe on a weekend morning, seen people talking, and thought, OK, talk show format, and then you see that they seem to be very excited about a particular product: it can be for building muscle or losing fat or learning a certain way, but they are so enthused, and then it hits you, this is not real entertainment, this is a paid commercial program! Now I want to warn you, I have an agenda, this is not a real sermon, just remember, you have been warned. 

Some 35 years ago, towards the end of a fairly noisy party, a friend, a man I had known for a few years, leaned over to tell me that when I had said a certain thing to him (actually quoted a verse from the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews), it had been a great help getting him through a particularly tough time. I thanked him, punched him on the right shoulder, and realized, as I wasn’t a real big Bible quoter, that I actually hadn’t said that. Doing campus ministry in the 1990s, I had a student come to me and thank me for giving her such valuable advice that I am now prepared to swear that I never offered, but I believe that she heard it from me anyway. And often now, in sermons, people thank me for something they heard from someone else’s sermon while I happened to be preaching. I smile and say, “That’s all right” and it is. It’s even more than all right, because it says something about how God sows his word in the world.

John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as the word of God, and certainly Christ is the definitive statement, but the truth is that each of us, is, carries that seed, casts out God’s love and God’s life in our lives and in our ministries, sowing seeds of connection and compassion and courage and truth in all we say or do (even if we don’t remember) in all of our meaning and our ministry. That’s one of the reasons we’re here as the baptized body of Christ, to hear the good word, the Gospel, so that we can be good news, so that we can remind and renew the whole creation with the Good news of Christ Jesus.

But for the last half century or so, we haven’t done it real well. (Even early in the last century, I think it was Bertrand Russell who sarcastically pitied “poor talkative Christianity.”) so sometime it seems like the whole party has moved to another corner and we’ve gotten harder to hear and less to say, with all the background sounds and now it’s more difficult to speak out and act out the word, the truth, of God’s love in our lives to our friends, family, neighbors, in our whole world.

So maybe the question is what I said here some six months ago:

How do we witness and work to reignite our church in a world that's fast moving in another direction, What do we say and do where slick slogans and quick answers are shouted at every corner? [certainly]... we don't stay quiet as the greatest ethical, spiritual, wisdom tradition within Western civilization moves slowly towards the sunset… we don't let the last person standing turn the lights out fold up the tent,  but what do we do?

Let me get a little personal here. I was ordained about two and a half years ago but before that I spent almost twenty years as a layperson in University ministry, chaplaincy, with some part-time teaching on the side. I had never planned for that. Actually, when I got to seminary in the 1980s I had no concrete plans, I just wanted to be there. I remember one staff member saying he felt that my most creative ministry in the church might be to go outside the church (and I thought, hmm), and in the late 1980s I worked part-time for Lauren Artress, who some of you know, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. When the bishop said he wasn’t ready to ordain me, Lauren asked if I had ever thought of University Chaplaincy, ministry in education, and I said I “think it would be too easy for me.” She looked at me and said, “Well, that’s interesting”, and it was.

But it wasn’t that easy. When I started campus ministry in 1991. it wasn’t that easy to try to speak simple, honest words to 19, 20, 21 year old undergraduates, to sow those seeds, to tell of Christ, after all that seminary education, and too many years in graduate school. So I tried to make new sense, to sow new seeds, to speak some new words on the road and in the dining commons and at the cafe and the gym and in hallways and wandering wherever the spirit led, even eventually in classrooms; and I listened a lot and learned to love more  and also found sometimes when I opened my mouth wide, God said, and people heard, things that were better than I knew. But I also found that the more I worked at It, the better it became, and the more real it got.

There’s the paradox, the gift gets better the more you give it. Ben Hogan was once asked how he became one of the greatest golfers in the world, and he said it was just luck. A reporter said, “But, Ben, you practice for eight hours every day”, and Hogan said, “Well, It just seems the more I practice, the luckier I get”.

And so several years ago, almost twenty years later, I got ordained and now one of my tasks in diocesan lay formation and education is the flip side of what I used to do: where I used to tell the world about the riches of the church, now I am trying to help the church share our truth with the world, because that’s where our hope is to be found.

So how do we come to sow our seeds? How do we live out our baptism vows to embody the word of God in our own lives? The simple truth is this; the more you practice the better you get.

For the last several years in the diocese, with St Columb’s Fair and some other offerings, we’ve worked at building places for people to learn more of the heritage we hold; the riches of Christ, the ebullient breath of the Holy Spirit, God’s loving creativity in the world we share. We’ve talked prayer and pastoral care and archiving our records and publicizing our events, and a lot in between. With this plus the Bishop’s Certificate and Education for Ministry (which you do so well here), people are growing mightily in faith, heart and mind, encouraged and encouraging each other in the ministry of  Christ, and now we are going farther to grow our faith and practice.

And here’s what I am selling. For the next six Thursday nights, from 7:00pm to 9:00pm here at St Augustine’s, I am offering a series of two hour gatherings with a systematic overview of Christian belief based on a book called “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg, Some would say Borg’s a serious scholar and theologian, others would say he’s too damn liberal, and I would say he’s very interesting, and offers a valuable way to see and question and work with  issues of faith and practice anew.

So for six weeks we’ll look at what belief and scripture, and God and Jesus and the community of the Holy Spirit might mean for us today. There will be a small charge for copies of each chapter, while the books are on the way and we can loan you one if that would help; but what we’re doing, and why this is important, is offering a systematic overview into understanding what God in Christ might mean in todays world and how we can get better in sharing this new creation. By the way, if there is any interest after that, we could consider a second  six week series on Christian practices, but that is very much up to you.

But I would bet that each of you, every Sunday, pray for people who are not here. They may be family, friends, neighbors, even strangers; and the very simple truth is that you just may be God’s word for them, and that call needs to be taken seriously, exercised, allowed to be graced (because so much of our ministry is Grace, and so much can be made better by regular practice). So, if you are interested in extending your understanding and ministry in Christ, you might bring them along, or you might carry them carefully and prayerfully in your heart; in either case, I commend this series to you. If you you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me after our Eucharist.

We will now return to our regular programming. In the name of Christ, Amen

Thursday, June 14, 2012

For the Diocesan Celebration of Anglican Women of Australia. St Antony of Padua

1 Kings, 18:20-39
Matthew 5:17-19

To start, I need to confess two things; first, that I made a mistake for the first lesson, and so if you think it sounds like the first lesson for yesterday, you are right! The second confession will come later in the sermon.

But my mistake makes it clear that there are even more reasons to celebrate the witness and life of St Antony of Padua, known as the Saint of the things that get lost.

There are some real lost causes in the two readings for today.

In the Hebrew Scripture, the Prophet Elijah asks a widow on the edge of starvation to fix one more company meal and assures her it will last for a long time. And then Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, that unless we fulfill the law and the prophets, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And if that  demand does not - at least on some days -  seems a bit of a lost cause, then at least it can give us pause,

Because when we look at the church, and the memories of fuller happier days -- still with a hope of the future, but still keenly aware of our losing numbers, our aging communities, the increasing numbers of friends, neighbors, family members who don’t see what we know to be at the heart of the church, the heart of God’s love for the world we see in Christ -- then we might feel we have lost at least some of our hope. So with all of that we have good and timely reasons to turn to St Antony of Padua.

He was born in Lisbon of prominent parents in 1195  - he’s in the same era as St. Francis. At the age of 15 he joins the religious order of St. Augustine and ends up spending nine years at the Convent of Santa Croce. To quote: “Gifted with an excellent understanding and a prodigious memory, he soon gathered from the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers a treasure of theological knowledge”. Before long he’s ordained as a priest and it looks he’s found his place, a teacher of theology; doing well, Antony, go to the head of the class.

But then he meets some Franciscans brothers, off to convert the Islamic people of Morocco ,and sees their lives and ministry moving, not from the head, not from mere  knowledge, but from the heart, giving their hearts away to, not just remind, but encourage others in the life of Christ.

In Morocco they are martyred, lose their lives, and when Antony witnesses this, he decides to joins the Franciscans; to leave behind the matters of the head, all that straw-dry theology, and give his heart away. He decides that he will offer his life as a martyr to convert the world to Christ.

But things change, it doesn’t happen. He does join the Franciscans but  he gets sick on the way to Africa and an unplanned wind blows his boat off to Italy. He ends up in Tuscany, working in the kitchen of a hospice without time for either prayer and study, a slightly marginal member of the community, not quite fitting in, a bit of a duck in the chicken coop, and maybe he has found a happiness and a simplicity beyond his expectations.

But again, it doesn’t last long. Antony happens to be around one day, when a number of Franciscan and Dominican friars are brought together for an ordination and there’s no one to preach. They turn to the Dominicans then to the Franciscans but everyone declines, saying they’re just not prepared. In desperation they choose Antony, “whom they thought only able to read the Missal and Breviary”, and they command him “to speak whatever the spirit of God might put into his mouth and Anthony, ‘compelled by obedience, spoke at first slowly and timidly, but soon enkindled with fervour, began to explain the most hidden sense of Holy Scripture with such profound erudition and sublime doctrine that all were struck with astonishment.”

Things change: a few weeks later, in 1224, Antony gets a letter from headquarters. “Brother Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that you teach theology to the brethren, provided, however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.”

Theology, prayer and devotion. A trinity of ingredients that balance and compliment our lives together, the makings for food from heaven, that can make a feast, that can feed a starving family, giving hope to a widow and child with some left over for a wandering prophet; food for a time when the old recipes seem to have dried out and left us hungry and without a lot of hope.

 Theology, prayer and  devotion: ingredients that grace us with a righteousness that can feed ourselves, our friends, families, neighbors, nations, and even passing strangers, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, the food of a full and balanced faith, the riches of Christ, The gift we are given in order to to give it away.

Now that second confession: In the 1970s I used to joke that I was raised by feminists; the truth was that I learned then and still learn now how most women have a greater facility, a deeper gift than men do, of combining head and heart; integrating theology, prayer and dovotion. Perhaps one of the reasons so many men were against the ordination of women to the churches priesthood was that women do so much better in the priesthood of all believers: lifting the world, the pain and glory, the sadness and sanctity, the head and heart and wholeness of people and places and all of life back to God, with a natural grace that does not come too easily to most males. And we all need this whole priesthood to share in the priesthood of Christ. Especially now, when theology has gotten so cerebral, so heady, so… can I say, blokey?

An American theologian and writer, Diana Butler Bass, who we are hoping to bring to the diocese in 2013, has a good way of looking at this. BTW, we have some copies of her book “Christianity for the rest of us” at the Registry Library,  so if you want to borrow one, come on by.

Butler Bass comes at theology prayer and devotion with three simple questions which she finds at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity -- old questions of believing, behaving, and belonging. But she says we are changing the way we ask those questions, changing in ways that enlarge and embolden the faith, ways that just might give us hope and vision, help us even exceed the righteousness of those dried out Pharisees in the old boys network.

Believing, behaving, and belonging. Now over the centuries, Butler Bass says Christianity has engaged these 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases and for the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But now the questions have changed as the world has changed.  Butler Bass writes that contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in those whose company they find themselves.

So, for Butler Bass, the questions have become:
How do I believe? (How do I understand and live with faith in my daily world
2) What should I do? (How can my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding,my self-giving?)

So believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which we engage each area have undergone a revolution… For her “The old faith formulations were externally based, questions that could be answered by appealing to a book, authority, creed, or code. The new spiritual longings are internally derived, questions of engagement, authenticity, meaning, and relationship. The old questions required submission and obedience; the new questions require the transformation of our souls.”

As Francis writes to Antony, so I say to you.  “It is my pleasure that you teach theology... Provided... that, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.”

Francis said one other thing: Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary, and you already know that!

Dear Anglican Women of Australia in the Diocese of Wangaratta. I look around this morning and I see so many lives as sound theological texts, sermons in flesh and blood, in lives given over, served out in offering wholeness, hospitality, health, hope and home; combining head and heart, exceeding the righteousness of all those macho scribes. While those macho Pharisees argue about their their desiccated commandments and their dried up meals, you have been singing the songs of praise and providing the bread of heaven. The heart of Christ’s ministry, that eternal priesthood, is found in your hands, blooms in your  very lives.

And as God is blessed in your ministry, may you continue to be blessed, may you continue to give blessings; today and always.  Amen

Monday, June 11, 2012

Towards a Theology of the Cloud

Today’s Gospel focuses on a time when Jesus’ family thinks he’s  really lost it. He’s doing things everyone knows you can’t do, and he’s going well beyond the local rules: so his family, his mother and brothers (Luke adds his sisters as well), are trying to bring back him home because he’s simply getting too big for his boots.

Astonished is the word that shows up a lot in Mark’s Gospel; Jesus, the disciples, the crowds, everybody gets astonished by what’s happening here; the local boy making good way beyond expectation: teaching with authority, casting out demons, healing the sick, preaching good news, even pardoning sinners! It’s almost unbelievable, and the people who know him best, his own family and the home town folk, are saying, this boy is getting above himself.

But what happens when you get above yourself? What happens when you see the horizon is higher, that life goes farther, that love comes closer than you ever knew?

This is a universal question. Some years ago a teacher in the Zen Buddhist tradition was asked if he could encapsulate his wisdom in two words, He was quiet for a moment, and then he answered, “Things change!” There’s a lot there, things do change.

Do you remember when computers were really big? In 1965, when I was in University, a friend used to spend one night a week playing chess with a computer that was as big as a room. Now I have a computer I can lift with one hand and an iPad that I can carry with three or four fingers and a phone that may very well be smarter than I am, but, as long as I remember the passwords, I am all right with that.

But things do change, and technology’s gone so far in such a short time! From the 1930s to the 1980s my father was a printer and typographer in California. He used to give tours of our small printing business to school kids, asking their names, tapping the keys and letting them watch as the machine manufactured a line of type with their name flashing in silver metal which he would proudly present to them.

And when computer typesetting came in the late 1970s he told me they could never match a well trained typographer and a fast linotype. Now when I play with my laptop, carefully adjusting the relationship between letter and word and page, between dark ink and light space, I think he would be very happy to see how wrong he was.

For finally he was able to see that the future would be bigger than the past, that what was coming might contain more  possibilities than what has been before. This is both a material and a spiritual reality, but it does takes a certain kind of faith to let the future be different than the past, to rest in the hope that God’s word and God's world, can be bigger then you know, and it’s often not easy.

For the crowd around Nazareth, and Jesus’ family too, figured that God was to be found in a certain way, following a certain direction, the tried and true traditional path, and, for the most part, they were right: but they were starting to see some things, right in front of their faces, that astonished them even more, that told them God and God’s word, God’s life in their sight might come to look like nothing they had ever seen before, and it scared them.

So their temptation was to split the world into two parts: on one side, “what we know, what we’re used to”, was good; and on the other side, what was new, surprising, “beyond us” was bad, damaged or demonic. But Jesus tells them that the world might be bigger, might be better, than they had thought; that the new answers might be larger, have more largesse, than those old questions. For Jesus tells us, as surely as he has loosened the yokes of those under oppression, he has also bound the adversary, he has also saddled sin and he has set us free.

Now, I will freely admit that it may take some time to see the fruits flower in this new creation, but it looks like God’s truth is that if Christ is risen from the grave and we are raised with Christ, then by the grace of God Jesus’ way has already won, and so have we. And then the question comes, how can we live with, how can we live out of this new truth?

St Paul gives us some of the answer in his Second letter to the Corinthians;

“the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus... so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day… preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

And how do we get our heads around this?

Let’s go back to technology for a that. In the last few years there is this new thing called “The Cloud” where individual computers users can store documents and records offsite, in a central location, sometimes quite a ways away. And now we can put programs and plans and letters and documents on this remote cloud and share them more easily and access and edit them from various locations and with different devices at different times, and it ends up we’re working better together to store and share and keep our work and our life in the cloud, and that sounds, if not a little like heaven, then at least like something, once again, bigger, different than the world I thought I lived in.

So I am not saying God is like a computer: but I am saying that we, right now, in our very deepest ecology, are building an heavenly glory (somewhere beyond the clouds) in the realm of God’s eternal now.

But before we get too happy, lets realize that can be a tricky truth to live into, because there's a danger that we get so “spiritual,” that we end up caring less for our earthly ministry. I remember, in the early 70s, when I was a youth group leader, a young woman telling me that she hoped her father accepted the Lord before the rapture came (which for her was somewhere like Wednesday) and I wanted to say, “Listen, God’s family might be bigger than that; God’s love might be bigger we know, we might want a bit more time to work on this.” I didn’t say that, instead I tried to follow the old bumper sticker wisdom, “Be patient, God isn’t finished yet!”

But now I’d quote Henry Thoreau; "If you have built castles in the air.. that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." For I am convinced that what we build in our ministry here, day by day, just in time, is foundational for always, for what lasts forever.

So maybe the plain truth is that we just need to keep looking at Jesus, who gives and lives his life right here in sight of heaven: living with sinners and saints, healing those broken hearts, sharing bread and wine and tears and hope,and always reminding us that the family is this big, the world is this large, the victory is this sure; for our lives even now are hidden in Christ, and nothing can ever separate us from that eternal love.

St. John Chrystostom preached this one Easter some 1600 years ago, it’s still true:

“Rejoice today for the Table is richly laden...
Let no one go away hungry. 
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,

for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; 
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, 
for the Death of our Savior has set us free...

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated...

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!