Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Follow up on "Swirling Thoughts"

David Bard was kind enough to provide me some very interesting feedback on my post "Swirling Thoughts". They're well worth reading. I'm going to need to think on them for a bit before I post a follow-up. Thanks David!


And they all fall down ....

The ginkgo leaves that is! Yesterday morning I was walking across campus and noticed that the ginkgo leaves were beginning to fall. I watched for a few minutes, and made my way to the bookstore. By the time I headed back to the School of Theology, less than a dozen leaves remained on each of the three trees. I recall reading in my undergraduate botany class that ginkgo's drop all their leaves at once, but was amazed that in less than an hour these three trees were nearly completely denuded of leaves. I grabbed a couple, figuring they'll make nice book marks for the books I purchased. They'll also remind me of a wonderful fall day on the St. John's campus.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sermon Notes from 19 October

I wasn't going to post this. But actually got a request to do so, so here it is.
(By the way, when you're looking at modifying your blogger layout with backgrounds and widgets from someplace other than blogger and they suggest that you back everything up .... back everything up.)

From Laity Sunday, October 19th, Alexandria United Methodist Church (these are notes, and as such aren't necessarily all grammatically correct, etc.)

A few weeks back I was sitting in the library at St. John’s reading through some commentaries on today’s lectionary readings. I had my Ipod on random play and while I was sitting there thinking about how I was going to approach today’s texts, this song came on and the lyrics stuck in my head:

You may be a state trooper, our you might be a young Turk,
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich, you may be poor, you may be blind or lame,
You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well it might be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Anyone know the song? The artist?

The question then is – is Dylan right? Are we obligated to serve somebody? The devil? The Lord?

I believe today’s Epistle Lesson and the Gospel Lesson that (note liturgist) read sheds a little bit of light regarding the question. For the Thessalonians there was no need to even speak of faith or service. They lived it. They lived it with consistency and with authority. Paul lauded them for that.

The Gospel story is a little different. Jesus is back in the temple. The same place that just a day or so before he sort of went ballistic in, overturning the money changer’s tables and sending everyone scurrying. If you recall Jesus was furious that the moneychangers where in the Temple because they were doing transactions that included Roman coinage; coinage that carried the idolic image of Caesar. That’s a directly forbidden under the 1st of the Ten Commandments. So forbidden that Jesus’ actions are described such that he takes on the Mosaic image – overturning the tables is a metaphor for smashing the tablets on the ground.

While he’s been in Jerusalem, He’s been making enemies, directly challenging the authority of the Pharisee’s and Sadducees and high priests. In this passage, they are absolutely out to get him. The Pharisees and the Herodians, a group of Jews that were loyal to Rome, had cooked up a scheme to entrap Jesus in an impossible situation. It’s interesting that normally, these two groups would have had nothing to do with each other, which tells us that they’re pretty serious about their little scheme. They approach Jesus, flattering him. They speak the truth, he is sincere, he teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth and he does show deference to no one, and he does not regard people with partiality. But the truth from the mouths of liars is a lie and Jesus sees that they’re trying to flatter him.

They ask him, if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The tax they are referring to was one that was charged to each Jewish resident of the Roman Empire. It was highly resented by the people, people who were likely struggling to just get by on a day-to-day basis. It was a constant reminder of their situation – a people oppressed in bondage in their own homeland. But the question is the trap. If Jesus answers “no” as they suspect he will, his answer will be considered treason against Rome and he would be arrested on the spot. If he answers “yes”, the people to whom he’s leading will see him as a sell-out to the Romans and his status as a prophet will be ruined. There’s no doubt that he’s in a difficult situation. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and the Herodians that pose the question to him, calling them hypocrites and He asks to see the money. Remember, this is a coin that has been minted specifically for this tax. As such it bears the image of Caesar on the coin. Possessing such a coin by any Jew would be considered idolatry – possessing such a coin in side the temple … beyond belief. But that doesn’t seem to bother the hypocrites who seek to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God actually carry an image of Caesar into the temple themselves.

Jesus refuses to answer their question directly, instead he asks whose head is on the coin. It’s rather curious that Jesus asks to see the coin – he just looks at it. Had he possessed the coin, he too would have been guilty of idolatry.

Just when Jesus is presented with A or B, he comes up with “C”

He looks it over and says “give to God the things that are God’s and the to emperor the things that are the emperors”.

I’m guessing you could about hear their jaws drop on the temple floor. Others were probably giving a good old first century Homer Simpsonesque “doh”. They scurried away “in amazement”. I’m guessing that “amazement” is a more user-friendly term that what actually happened!

Now, traditionally this text has been neatly packaged dividing our reality into two spheres – loyalty to God and loyalty to government. I'm not so certain. Jesus has never ever been about dividing our selves or our loyalties. He’s saying that by possessing those coins at all, the Herodians and Pharisees are idolaters. He’s not recommending that we learn to live with divided loyalties. He’s saying that all the idolatrous coinage be sent back to Caesar. The reality is that there can’t be such a distinction because everything, other than a bunch of coins stamped with the image of Caesar, is Gods!

To get a bit better look at this, I find it helpful to look where this story sits in Matthews Gospel. It’s mixed in amongst a bunch of parables in which Jesus is trying to explain what the Kingdom of God is all about. He’s compared it to a king hosting a wedding banquet, a landowner and his vineyard. In this story he is continuing that teaching, explaining that God’s Kingdom is free from the need to idolize an emperor or his coins. He’s talking about pledging an allegiance not to Caesar’s economy but to God’s. He’s giving us more clues about what it means to be a disciple and a citizen of God’s Kingdom.

So, other than a bunch of coins stamped with image of Caesar what are we supposed to give back to God? The things stamped with God of course! US! We are to give ourselves to God – our entire selves.

Giving our selves to God is a tough thing to think about. What does that really mean? How are we to live in a society like ours that is so nationalistic and materialistic and still give ourselves to God? For me, this is when I look to the monks at St. John’s for a bit of guidance. These are some holy men. They get up every morning at 5 a.m., pray, eat breakfast in silence, go to morning prayer, go about their work all day, stop at noon and 5 p.m. for prayer and Mass, and then end the day with evening prayer at 7 p.m. Every Day!!! But there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these guys are really like you and I. They have their good days and their bad days. They have holy days and some not so holy days. Some days are just plain unholy. I think there are two really obvious traits we can take from the monks. First, being a disciple, being holy, is something that we need to constantly work towards, every day. It’s like John Wesley talked about going on to perfection. It’s an every day thing. Second, we need to realize that we can’t do that every single day. When you sit in the choir with the monks for Morning Prayer a number of times, you realize that the chants and prayers go way beyond any single person. It’s the sum of the parts that makes that community function. They know that if they’re having one of those less than holy days, there is someone there to pick up the slack. They also know that when they’re “on their game” they’re picking up the slack for someone else. That’s community. That’s church.

In the next couple of weeks we’ll all be asked to put in our pledges for the next year. This is going to be tough for many of us this year. We’re unsure of what the economy holds. We’re unsure of the future. Things are likely to get even rougher. It’s now more than ever that people are going to need church. They’re going to need a community that is there for them. They’re going to need a community, a church free of conditions and questions. Is this going to be that kind of community? Are we going to pledge our allegiance to God’s economy? Are we going to pick of the slack for people that are struggling economically, physically, emotionally, or spiritually?

This summer I was reading a book “New Monasticism: What it has to say to Today’s Church”. I think Jeanne was worried that I’d been spending a little too much time with the Monk’s at St. John’s when she saw the title, but I assured her it was OK, I wasn’t running off to the Abbey. In the book Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story about a medium-sized church in a small midwestern town. Their rural location really limed their growth. As Wilson-Hartgrove says, “if every soul within 5 miles had suddenly found Jesus, they could probably still fit into their building.” Still, some folks had heard about church growth and that if you wanted to grow you needed to expand your physical facilities. So they started planning a new education wing and multi-purpose space. I’m seriously NOT making this stuff up! They launched a building campaign. Hired a consultant. I’m not kidding. Here’s the book. But unlike us, they didn’t really do their homework, either that or they didn’t have a Carol Meyer or Bruce Pohlig on their steering committee. After a few years, they’d only reached about half of their goal. Resigned to the fact that the new building wasn’t going to happen the looked around to see what they could do with the money they’d raised. It turns out that during the campaign a family had joined the church that didn’t have much money. To make matters worse, the father had been in a car accident and was disabled. They struggled to make ends meet. But this church knew another economy. They knew the economy of God’s Kingdom that has generosity in its foundation. They took the money they’d raised and built a house for that family. That’s God’s Kingdom. That’s God’s economy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I genuinely believe in this building project. Churches need space to do God’s work. Yet a church that shows God’s economy and the generosity of God’s Kingdom is NEVER, EVER going to have to worry about church growth.

We all get busy. We all live within financial constraints. And we often complain about how hard it is to balance church with everything else going on. We don’t want to sacrifice “alone time”, family or travel time for worship. We tend to give God our leftovers. But God deserves to be on more than equal footing with work, recreation, whatever else we have going on. It involves sacrifice.

Stan Hauerwas is a theological ethicist at Duke Divinity School. He says that in this story about Jesus we’re put in a very difficult position. It’s really unsolvable. How do we give God everything and still function in society? Hauerwas says that when you realize that struggle, the sacrifice involved, you’ve taken the first step to becoming a disciple.

Bob Dylan says you’re gonna have to serve somebody. I think Dylan is right, the question is, who’s it going to be?


Matthew by Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Press
New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
The Best of Bob Dylan
Sarah Laughed

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hmmm ... really?

I hope that "B" I got in Intro isn't going to be held against me!

Monday, October 20, 2008

In a matter of seconds

Saturday afternoon Jeanne and I spent some time hiking the trails at Lake Carlos State Park. It was a nice afternoon to leave school work and sermon prep and just enjoy what has been a pretty nice fall.
Along the way I noticed some orangish aspen leaves that had become stuck on some maple trees. The orange of the leaves provided an interesting contrast to the dark, rough bark of the maple. I snapped a picture and then accidentally a second, just moments later. When we got home I was surprised at how different the two pictures were. Just one cloud, or shifting branch completely changed the picture. (Unfortunately, the photo quality on blogger doesn't really show the dramatic difference.)

An infinite God providing us infinite ways of looking at things.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Swirling Thoughts

This week has been incredibly busy. Trying to get caught up on some reading, working on a mid-term, trying to get my paper work lined up for our church's charge conference, and preparing a service for this week's laity sunday. There's been a definite need to purposefully slow down and focus. Luckily I've been able to make it to morning prayer twice this week. In and amongst all the scholarship and church stuff, I count those 30 minutes as a blessing. The other time I count as a blessing is when I'm driving back and forth to St. John's. This week has been a little distracting since the fall colors have been phenomenal. Otherwise it's a wonderful hour of reflection time.

One of the thoughts I've been working through, or at least attempting to (this is a "draft thought" if you will), is how much ownership should protestants take in the current state of our economy and the overall materialism that shapes our culture. I see a direct correlation to the self-interest and greed the has gripped society and the existentialism and self-based salvation that the likes of Bultmann and others have thrust into Protestant Theology. Before I go any further, I should note that I don't think Catholics can be let off the hook either. They've become what Stanely Hauerwas calls Super Americans, basically kicking their faith to the curb so they'd fit into society as well. Admittedly, that somewhat weakens my arguement for a direct correlation, but my response is that Catholics were merely falling in step with Protestants to fit into the culture. That isn't cause and effect. I also think that this existentialism is one of the main causes of the decline in mainline Protestantism. People have been preached about developing an individual relationship with God so much that the next step is to find and develop that relationship on their own. Who needs a church for that? That's exactly why new age shamans like Eckhart Tolle are so successful. Obviously, one can argue that the mega-churches and some evangelical modes have been quite successful using the existentialist thought and the personal relationship with God and Jesus. However, I'd counter argue that success if based on poor theology and false promises that manifest themselves in things like the prosperity gospel and weak or non-existent ritual and liturgy. In essence the success if based largely on super-sized existentialism and a capitalized Christianity.
I see mainline Protestantism struggling to overcome something of their own doing. The push to individualism has cost them community. Now, I'm certain people are reading this (all 5 of you) saying "but wait, I've got a vibrant church community". I'm equally certain you do. But I think we need to ask why we consider 30 to 40 percent of church membership on any given Sunday a good week. Why is the number of "unchurched" in our community becoming larger than those that do belong to a church? Do we offer them that sense of community? Even more, do we expect them to actively participate in that community?
In answering my initial question, I believe we need to take at least partial ownership in what's going on on Wall Street and even more on "Main Street". We're at least partially do blame for setting people down the path of individualism that has led to greed and materialism. I also believe it is our responsibility to bring them back.
One a more individual plane (don't think I can't see the irony here) I'm struggling on where I fit into this landscape of Christianity right now. Just another swirling thought that comes into my mind traveling down I-94 I guess.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Anger. That can pretty much sum up my Sunday afternoon. Oh, Sunday started off well, church as good and the Sunday School class involved a pretty lively discussion. But then in mid-afternoon, as is our custom, my mother called. We usually just chat a bit, about the kids, how everyone is feeling, school, the weather. We generally avoid politics, she's a single issue voter and I've told her enough times that I can't put all my electoral eggs in one basket, that the world is much too complicated for that to dominate my politics. We agree to disagree. She's a very sweet, intelligent lady - even after 35 years in an elementary classroom. Yesterday though, she blindsided me and what she said angered me and ruled my thought process all the rest of the day. I wasn't angry at her but at the Republican Party. I was, and still am, angry that all of the threats, distortions, and down right lies about Obama's ties to terrorism, Islam, and radicalism had made my mother scared. I'm angry that the person that taught me about racism and compassion, is now afraid of having a black man as President. I'm angry that despite living through the Great Depression and World War II in poverty, my mother says she's more afraid than ever. I'm angry that despite falling victim to this same type of smear in 2000 (when the Rovians killed his campaign in South Carolina by starting rumors of an illegitimate black child, an alcoholic wife, a homosexual lifestyle, and that he was some type of Manchurian Candidate) John McCain has adopted these same campaign tactics. He has tried to quell some of the more radical notions in recent campaign stops, in Wisconsin he did say Obama is "a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States", a comment that was greeted by a chorus of boos. But I'm afraid that train has already left the station Senator. I'm angry at a campaign that allows this rhetoric to even enter the dialogue, that fear, hate, and racism are being used as a campaign tactic. I'm angry because all of the hate that has been cultivated in the last month is only going to generate more hate; hate that has the potential to consume each and every one of us.
Dr. Martin Luther King said "hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that". I pray he's right.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

These Guys Know How to Throw a Party

I apologize that I haven't really posted anything of "substance" here lately but I'm afraid that the election would permeate anything I write so I've been avoiding it altogether. I've also been trying, fairly successfully I might add, to keep up on my school work so this kind of gets shoved to the back burner. School has been going well and I am keeping on top of things. I've mentioned this a number of times, but one aspect that drew me to St. John's is the Benedictine community. With an 8 a.m. course on Tuesday and Thursday, I've taken that opportunity to leave home a little early so I can make morning prayer at 7. It's become one of the highlights of my week. I treasure the opportunity to learn from these men, both in a spiritual as well as an academic setting. (As a bonus, how incredible is it to learn about the Psalms from someone that reads them on a daily basis?) The members of the community are part of the University and the School of Theology and it is very apparent that they love having the students from the School of Theology around. Last night they held a reception for us, and it was awesome! The food, the drink (hey, Methodists - these guys know how to pair food and wine, imagine that!) and socializing were top notch. What I find most amazing is how interested the monks are about me, a Methodist fish squeezer. Imagine, a internationally-known poet or biblical scholar asking me about my studies, my work, and my interests. It's that sense of humbleness that I appreciate and which I hope resonates in me and from me.
Oh, and they know how to through a party too.