Saturday, November 25, 2006

sermon 3: Luke 14.12-15, given at seminary

Luke 14:12-15

Then He also said to him who invited Him, "When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!"

This one was on really short notice and I don't even have a note card from which to recall. So it'll be brief.

The angle I took was the idea of the calculated investment, namely that the Christian faith is not a calculated investment.

Frequently there is a notion that Christianity makes life work a little bit better, and that all things will eventually be equalized. Essentially this is just a variation of the mistaken notion that God's kingdom exists in the here and now. It's false. Rather, we're to live as if God's kingdom existed in the here and now, in spite of evidence, and even consequences, to the contrary. We're called to symbolize something that should be, but which is not yet. As such, we're often going to be on the losing end of many earthly deals.

As leaders in the Church this has ramifications especially for how we choose to accept money. We have to insist that money is essentially no-strings-attached. Either the person is giving it to God, for the glory of God, or they're giving it to their pet projects.

I told the two-sided story of a youth minister named Jeff. The first had to do with Jeff's tendency to take the begging hobos outside out for dinner once a week at sitdown restaraunts. He always got the biggest kick out of how people responded to him walked in with this guy who smelled like soiled clothing mixed with a healthy dose of unwashed masses. Then he'd go drop them off back at the church, which was near the shelter. I asked him what they usually said when he dropped them back off. His answer: "Got a couple of bucks? I need some smokes." Basically he'd gleefully consigned himself to bringing light into the lives of the unfortunate without questioning their worthiness or expecting some sort of roundabout benefit for himself. He did it because God commanded him to do it, not because he thought it was generally edifying for himself. In fact, he confessed that every time it was uncomfortable, and that he didn't "like it", per se, but that it seemed nevertheless to be a positive ministry.

Jeff was also chosen as one representative for a new chapel committee. The Church had built a new place of worship but was having the damndest time actually moving into it. You see they had the money, in theory, but all of the money had stipulations. They'd have $10,000 for pews, but that was in a family's name, and they wanted the old pew with great great grandfather's name on it moved over, even though it was falling apart, rather than to build a new one. The pulpit also had a name on it. The marble flooring was similarly endowed with conditions attached. Millions of dollars existed within the church, but they were all controlled by people who's membership in the church, and subsequent endowment of the church, was for any other reason besides salvation in Christ.

We need to avoid such situations. No matter how rich we may seem, if the gifts come to us for reasons other than the hope of salvation in Christ, we're likely going to have those same gifts bite us on the back end in the future.

But really any occasion can be an opportunity to widen the net of salvation, it's all a matter of how we use it. john Chrysostom, the saint who's day this is, had no trouble telling people how it was, and even biting the hand that fed him in the process. He wasn't a conniving and meticulous politician as so many of our hierarchs are. He left the politics to the politicians and he preached the gospel in spite of all things. He was exhiled and eventually killed for preaching against the empresses' status of herself. He blasted it, was exiled, and then when finally reinstated, used that as an opportunity to blast it again, for which he was killed.

He also is known for having said that if you're going to have a huge wedding reception with many festivities, then you need to round up the poor. Why should your blessings be used only for you and the ones you like? Are you not inedbted to God to use your festive occasion not just for self-celebration, but also for the opportunity it offers to show forth his kingdom to those who cannot often taste of such festivities? Do we not often hold these huge weddings only so that relatives have a reason to gather or because we're expected to keep up appearances? Do we not often give presents at such events on the tacit understanding that we will be paid back in roughly equal amount at future times?

In the case of Jeff and in the case of Chrysostoms's weddings, people were stumbling into the notion of the faith as a calculated investment. They were setting up a system wherein their faith was yet another vehicle to reward themselves in a roundabout sort of way, with only the veneer of religiosity. Calculated investment is the way our capitalist-trained minds tend to work, but we're in need of some serious re-education if we're going to live as Christians.

sermon 2: Luke 12.16-21, given at a parish

Luke 12:16-21

Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry." 'But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.


This one was a rough delivery as I was in a new setting which was mildly uncomfortable, and also I didn't want to turn it into another "feed the poor" topos. I figure if they didn't get that in the other thousand sermons that they're probably in hell already for willfull disobedience. So I took a different angle, that of the man doing nothing, or in the words of the priest in Boondock Saints "the indifference of good men."

I first quoted the thinker Edmund Burke: "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The point has to be made the the rich farmer in the reading isn't really a bad guy. He's an okay guy. He got lucky with his harvest. The ground yielded - there's no indication that he did anythin skillful). And so what's his first instinct? He decides that his work is over. He's going to re-invest in order to ensure future success and then retire with a nice pension to live in the lap of luxury. His mistake comes when he says "alrighty soul, we're done here".

If he was a gentile, or in our case a non-Christian, he would be fine. It cannot really be argued that he's unethical. He's taking care of himself with his products and re-investing for future success - that's Good Business 101 last time I checked, and no doubt most of us would do the same. His issue as a Jew is that he forgot the words long written down - the Covenant between God and Moses - in the 12th chapter of Genesis. Moses is told that he and his people will be blessed in order to be a blessing to all nations. Moses' commission, and the commission of God's covenant itself, is equal parts blessing and burden.

Like the rich farmer, we often like the first part of the covenant but frequently forget the second. Few of us have any problem thanking God for our rich harvests and plentiful gifts, be we don't choose to use them proactively. We are the New Israel and we often repeat the mistakes of the old one. It could be said that Jesus' most fundamental issue with the Jews of his time was the idea that they were using their unique status with God as a matter of exclusion, pride, and vainglorious hope rather than as a source to reach out and bless those around them. Could not the same be said of us?

It's not for nothing that the reading occurs right before Thanksgiving, while we're gathered around the table with our families. We'll say prayers togehter (possibly), be thankful, partake of gut-stuffing bounties... it's a nice time of year. But what of those we're failing? What of those who aren't being treated justly, who can't be with their families, or who have not had plentiful blessings of which to partake?

It should also be said that the path of taking care of our own is tempting. It's tempting to take care of yourself and your family and forget greater responsibilities. It's far easier to define who is entrusted to your care very narrowly, to those for whom effects of our actions are rather apparent and physically tangible. But Christ didn't allow us this outlet. Our family, according to the Christians proclamation, is all fellow believers, and our neighbor, upon who's treatment our salvation hinges, is everyone we effect, affect, or impact. It's an all out assault that Jesus launches on the walls we build - OUR family, OUR community, OUR nation. All of these are chastized as idols that we can worship in flasehood, however blessed a purpose they might have served had we turned them towards something good. We begin to see these institutions as inherently good rather than contingently good. In point of fact they're like any other institutions... they're as good or as bad as the master they serve.

Although I'd like for everyone who has the resources and love for God to do something huge for the kingdom, for example child adoption, many of us don't have those resources, and our faith isn't yet that strong. So I asked everyone to at least do this much - while we're all partaking of our feasts and family, let's remember those who aren't there, those we're failing, those to whom we're not evil, nor are we hateful or antagonistic towards, but those whom we simply haven't helped... those to whom we are indifferent towards.

Sermon annotation number 1: Ephesians 6.18-24, given at seminary

Well, I've given three sermons this semester, all on short notice and temporally in quick succession. As I haven't been scripting them, I cannot recall all that was said, but I do have rough outlines that I hope interested parties can use as preaching tips. My rhetorical skills have been a touch on the shabby side due to a number of factors, but in terms of content I think I've done a decent job of isolating something edifying and often something not terribly obvious in some mildly difficult passages. Here are my preaching notes with relevant texts attached.

Sermon 1: Ephesians 6:18-24

praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints - and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. But that you also may know my affairs and how I am doing, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make all things known to you; whom I have sent to you for this very purpose, that you may know our affairs, and that he may comfort your hearts. Peace to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen

The topic of this sermon had to do with boldness. First I placed this verse within the wider context of its chapter. The verse is the continuation of the 'spiritual warrior' analogy, where the final element in the warrior's garb is the sword of the gospel. I noted that the sword is the only aggressive piece in the warrior's equipment. The preached gospel is, therefore, all that can be used to "attack".

But a warrior needs more than proper equipment. Normally one of the biggest factors in elite military units is moral, or as the French say, esprit de corps. It's the warrior's attitude and discipline that are necessary to maximize the benefit of the solid equipment. In the best units the warriors also believe in the cause - they're willing to give their lives for its success.

Paul here is being drug before the Roman courts. His prayer is to be given an "utterance" in his captivity so that he may "proclaim the gospel" - the very sword mentioned in the previous passage. But beyond that, his rational for wanting this utterance is so that "I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak."

Now most of us may never be dragged into a hostile court to make account of our faith, but is boldness then lost?

Let's hope not. Even reading the early fathers, the impression one gets is that right or wrong in their individual assertions, there is no lack of boldness in their speech. But what of us? At seminary I'm preaching to future pastors, counselors, educators, and other leaders of the Church. In what sense are we to be bold? How could we look for boldnes in those around us and cultivate a bold attitude that is nonetheless compatable with humility?

There are, naturally, too many answers to address them all, so I chose to pick a couple of examples.

1. Boldness isn't necessarily loudness. Oftentimes it's just a matter of standing up to be counted. There are greater and smaller examples that are all impressive to a degree. I used two examples:

a. Christine, a Catholic girl I knew in my university days. We were out with some other poli sci people, probably younger democrats, and one of them went off on a tirade about Christians. Christine kept her mouth closed during this tirade and everyone joined in the group-think bashing. Finally when all was a little quieter Christine said out loud to the original speaker "You know, I'm a Christian and I'm sorry that we get under your skin so much. If you have such deep-seated issues, then perhaps you'd like to talk to me about it in private so that I could understand you better." Conversation over! It was awesome, nobody said a word, and the vitriolic yammerings of the whole group were confronted by her simple, humble choice to be counted among the group that was being ridiculed.

b. The other story was from Fr. Tarazi about his time in Romania under the Communists. The Romanian Patriarch at the time decided that it was going to cause too much commotion for priests to wear cassocks and have long beards. They would be harassed in public, and it often led to an inability to conduct themselves peacefully or it interfered with their pastoral responsibilities. So, no cassocks in public. But for his monks the Patriarch had an entirely different ruling - they had to wear their cassocks at all times and to have beards! In other words, nobody pushes this guy around. It's like the holy equivalent to "bring it on". Such open boldness became a living proclamation, especially when the monks were spit on and roughed up. It showed that there was a power stronger than the false god of Communism. Again, boldness in humility.

2. Another part of being bold in our setting, especially as pastors and leaders, is to name sins and confront them in all of the exactness and particularity. We too often speak in broad generalities. Of course this has the benefit of making the statements universal - "be kind" sorts of things. But it has the side-effect of being easily twisted. It's a great deal more difficult to worm around thou shalt's and thou shalt not's than it is to re-shape "love thy neighbor" in our own image. We have to spell out what we mean, in our situation, by the broad platitudes that we spout. People have exact problems, with defined issues, and we need to see our pastoral duty as boldly calling forth these demons and exorcizing them.

I think many of us at seminary would be shocked to realize how clueless people actually are about what we do and don't consider sins, and often they don't see the practical extensions of our generalities unless we make them more explicite. Does the average fornicator realize that they're "not being chaste". I don't think so. Many would arge that they are, by the standards of their society. Does the businessman who's only giving 1% of his very large income realize that he's "being greedy"? Probably not... my guess is that he can rationalize the situation rather easily without some sort of barometer being given from outside his own schematics.

3. This all leads into sins of omission. I think here we get into a great deal of trouble. It isn't okay simply to avoid evil, Christians are called to do good. Avoiding the bad is only half of the equation, and arguably the less important half. God bless us if we occasionally committ an extra sin in order to do multiple works of good. Occasionaly if you try and help the unrighteous, you are sullied and influenced by the lesser side, but if you're living the gospel in the midst of it, then our shortcomings become the opportunity for grace.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nebulous religiosity

"The dancing was very spiritual. I definately transcended something."

That was the quote of a university student who had been studying a certain type of traditional dance in India. The dance in question was apparently quite exaughsting, which in turn, combined with the notion of being in India, apparently led the girl to the conclusion that she'd encoutered the unseen realm.

Her quote sat very poorly with me. Not that it's bad or ill-meant, but because it's just so bloody typical. Particularly among the younger generation there is this notion of being nebulously, indefinably, 'spiritual'. It's hogwash. It's just a religion of feelings, sans discipline, stirred with a large dose of experiential intuitions.

The problem I have with this kind of religiosity is that it doesn't mean anything. It isn't standard-bearing and ultimately doesn't ask you to respond in a reformative way to the reality of the beyond.

If we're to believe evolutionary science, then the most basic instincts we have are the sympathetic nervous responses - sexual desire and "fight or flight" response. Secondarily is the dedication to those genetically alike to us, particularly those who are phenotypically alike. Any religion that doesn't address these basic impulses is, to my way of thinking, a vapid spiritual disposition. It's esoteric masturbation that gets us nowhere.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Celebrity status... for only $1

So i'm a celebrity at the local Thai resteraunt. It's true. Can't deny it. Everyone who goes with me sees it too. (Nate makes a good case that I tend to assume celebrity status pretty quickly in a variety of settings. Dunno, I actually feel very alone and private much of the time). It's all about going in there alone for the very first time and ordering two dishes that aren't on the menu, and knowing the ingredients and cooking methods to a large enough extent that the Thai guy can pick out what you mean, then eating them with sticky rice and peppers dip.

So today we're figuring out proper tip after the meal... I say well, here's 22 for a 17 order... 5 tip? N. says "four would be appropriate". Ahh, but no I reprove! Five! The extra dollar is what maintains celebrity status. Oh yeah - skills.


I d/l'd MSN Messenger for a computer away from campus. It automatically assigned me an icon of two horses, one white and one black. It's like wow, we have to watch it for discrimination icons now? sheesh. It's a PC PC... who'd have thought. Perhaps they should sell that as an additional feature.