Why bother with commandments?

Jesus said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)

Makes sense. But why is Jesus talking about commandments?

We’re now at the sixth Sunday of the Easter season. Next week we remember the Ascension of Jesus up into heaven and the Sunday after that is ‘hair on fire Sunday,’ or Pentecost Sunday. So this is the last Sunday when the resurrected Jesus is present with his disciples. Next week he goes away and the week after that the Holy Spirit arrives. Thus this is the week when Jesus tries to tell his followers how to become the People of God – or perhaps more accurately to become part of the Family of God. Based on the history of the people of Israel, Jesus probably though one way to accomplish this goal was to give us some commandments to follow. Continue reading “Why bother with commandments?”

Making no peace with opression

The headline on Facebook stopped me cold:

“Jerry Falwell Jr.: Trump is Evangelicals’ ‘Dream President.’”

I hesitated for a moment and then shared this story on my Facebook feed with a post that went something like this:

“He may be the dream president of evangelicals. But he is a nightmare for all real Christians.”

And then I went on about my business. A west coast Episcopal priest was first to comment: after allowing as how she shared some of my frustration she went on to say she didn’t like to ‘label’ people. And I understand where she’s coming from. After all, Jesus told us to “Judge not lest ye be judged.” But I’m still concerned by this “no label/no judgment” idea.

When Jesus told us not to judge one another he meant just that: we are not to judge other individual people. So all those folks you know who are sure they know the individuals who are going to hell are doing exactly what Christians are supposed to do. Continue reading “Making no peace with opression”

What “comes with” baptism as a Christian?

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today we hear St. Peter talking urging people to be Baptized “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But what does that mean to a Christian – to you or to me – living here in 21st century San Francisco? Why is baptism important? How should baptism change our life?

One of my colleagues, Fr. John Kirkley over at the Church of St. James, tells the story of the first time a Yankee traveler ordered breakfast down south. Once his order arrived he called the waitress over and started to complain. “What’s this on my plate?” he asked. “Why those are grits, sir” came the reply. But I didn’t order any grits,” the man argued. You see he was worried he would be charged for something he did not order. “Oh honey, you don’t order grits – they just come with.” Today we need to consider what “comes with” baptism as a Christian.  Continue reading “What “comes with” baptism as a Christian?”

The importance of doubt in a spiritual life

While wrestling with this week’s scripture I found a series of pithy sayings online all of which were supposed to present the correct “Christian” view of doubt. My flat out favorite was the one that showed a picture similar to the one on the cover of today’s worship book. Underneath the text read: “Doubt for one minute and they never let you forget it.” The rest of the quotes which were supposed to present the correct “Christian” view of doubt fell into two different schools of thought which were diametrically opposed to each other.“Cast out doubt. Cultivate Faith” was an early winner from the ‘No Doubt allowed’ side. “Doubt you doubts before your doubt your faith” came in a close second.

The ‘Doubt-full’ side of this debate held that doubt is a good for your soul. “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith,” wrote Pail Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. I think American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamont hit it out of the proverbial park when she said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”

Continue reading “The importance of doubt in a spiritual life”

Searching for a new creation in Jesus Christ of justice, love, & peace

Some years ago a there was an interesting auction in Paris. It was back in 1993, when two tiny slivers of olive wood were sold for more than $18,000. You see, accompanying the two slivers of wood were two certificates from the Vatican that ‘authenticated’ the wood as fragments of the true cross – the actual cross upon which Jesus died. The certificates were from 1855 – but they still carried a great deal of weight.

But you and I, we have not studied, prayed, and worshiped our way through 40 days and nights to be left on Easter contemplating two small slivers of olive wood. We’re looking for something more. For this year, we decided we would take on Justice instead of giving up something for Lent. In so doing, we started searching for a spiritual path as 21st century San Franciscans. We have not traveled through a Justice Lent for an icon of two small pieces of wood that point to the crucifixion instead of the resurrection. Yet what are we to see in this Easter story?

It feels like every few years, some high-ranking church leader somewhere slips into unintended controversy for appearing to deny the reality of the Resurrection. The hapless theologian’s name is in the papers and all over the blogosphere. “Devout” members of their church and churches everywhere are scandalized. There is sometimes talk of excommunication, even if the cleric doesn’t belong to a church that practices excommunication.

On closer examination, it usually turns out that the offending cleric did not actually deny of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Instead, they expressed a vague – you might even say muddled – statement of uncertainty about the exact relevance and meaning of the resurrection in our 21st-century world.

Here’s what’s amazing: if we carefully examine our sacred stories of the Resurrection, we find an abundance of precedent for confusion and muddled thinking. The remaining eleven Apostles – the first bishops, as many believe – prove this point. According to Luke, upon hearing the news of the empty tomb, they reject the women’s testimony out of hand as “an idle tale” and pay no further attention to it. They simply cannot believe their ears. Continue reading “Searching for a new creation in Jesus Christ of justice, love, & peace”

Ok: it is Easter – so what now?

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Ok: it is Easter – now what?

This is our first Mass of Easter, our great celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But what does Easter really mean in 21st century San Francisco? Is it a time for feasting or chocolate to sit back and enjoy the annual Hunky Jesus contest in Golden Gate Park? How would you to explain Easter to someone who is completely unaware of Christianity: what would you say – or do?

In his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Humorist David Sedaris writes of attending a language class in France with other immigrants. He writes:

“It was Easter season and a Moroccan student, a Muslim, raised her hand and asked in French, ‘Excuse me, but what is an Easter?’ The teacher called upon the rest of the class to help explain. The Polish students led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who called his self Jesus …’ she faltered and swore, and one of her countrymen came to her aid, ‘He call his self Jesus, and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.’ The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. ‘He died one day and then he go above my head to live with your father.’ ‘He weared of himself the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back to say hello to all the people.’ ‘He nice, the Jesus.’”

Part of the problem was the student’s limited vocabulary. They didn’t know how the words for “cross” or “resurrection,” so Sedaris explains: “Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “‘Easter is a party to eat of the lamb,’ one Italian explained. ‘One may too eat of the chocolate.’”

Sometimes I face this same linguistic hazard trying to talk about Easter or Jesus here in San Francisco. After walk through the valley of the shadow of silicon, it is hard to find a common language for discussing our spiritual lives. Beyond that lack of a shared understanding, resurrection is difficult to discuss because it defies all logic, rationality and common sense. Dead people don’t rest in the grave for three days and then suddenly set out of their tomb. Do they? Continue reading “Ok: it is Easter – so what now?”

“Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”

Famous last words:

“Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”

Consider what some have said as their death approached:

Macbeth: “Out, out brief candle; life’s but a walking shadow.”

Goethe: “Light! More light!”

Anatole France:  “Draw the curtain; the farce is played out.” and

Jesus Christ:  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

As a hospital chaplain, I’m sometimes privileged to share someone’s final moments of life. As I look back these passing’s, I see how these words of Jesus reflect his deep belief in a God who loves and will not abandon any of God’s children. And these words remind me of something Dr. Karl Barth said while on a lecture tour of prestigious American universities during the early 1960s. Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who is still regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century. For while teaching in Germany he dared to confront Hitler, preaching Christian truth to power. Barth was then driven from his teaching position in Germany and exiled to his native Switzerland. He is very much a saint of our times.

People jammed the University of Chicago’s chapel to hear Barth speak. Perhaps his most memorable answer came to a jaded journalist who asked: “Dr. Barth, what is the single, most important discovery you have made in your years of theological work?”

After pausing for a moment, Barth replied: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” To Barth, as Jesus was about to die on the cross, in his final moments of life, Jesus returned to this basic truth: God loves me. Jesus did not lecture us on arcane points of theology or dispute fine points of the law. He did not call down hellfire on those who nailed him to the cross. He did not judge his friends who had abandoned him. Instead, he said the first prayer he ever learned. This is what gave great comfort to his soul in his last moments: these last words were a testimony to what his life was about; to what our life can be about. Jesus began life with God–and he completed his earthly journey with God. He had maintained a direct, personal relationship with God. Continue reading ““Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!””

God is not a magician: so why a valley of dead bones?

God is not a magician. God doesn’t do tricks like making a valley full of dry bones come back to life. God is not a sorcerer from an old Disney animated film who magically makes dead bones reassemble, mysteriously coming back together to form real live human beings. Sure, an animator can make that appear to happen. But in real life, we can’t make dead bones come back to life. Why? Because God is not a magician. Pope Francis said so and I agree – at least on this one point of theology: God is not a magician.

So what do we make of today’s story from the Jewish Bible” the famous story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones? Sure sounds like God’s making magic to me. Perhaps we should start by considering the context of this famous scriptural text. Scholars say this teaching dates from around 587 BCE, (Before Common Era). Those were difficult days for the people of Israel. Their country had endured years of warring disputes and battles. Some of the battles were as bad as the Civil War battle of Gettysburg which left thousands of dead bodies spread over the fields and valleys of that rural land.

In those days, the Babylonians were the region’s superpower. But King made a slight tactical error and decided to fight the reigning superpower. Thus the Israelite army fought the Babylonians and the Israelite army lost – and they lost big time: the Israelite army was wiped out, and all their young warriors were killed. Only unlike at Gettysburg, what was left of Israel didn’t have the ability to bury the dead. Instead, they were left in the desert, covering the sands as far as the eye could see in all directions. But that was only one of the indignities visited upon ancient Israel. Their temple was destroyed, their capital sacked and their people left in absolute poverty. The Book of Lamentations tells us: “All the people grown as they search for food but no one gives them anything.” Perhaps the “lucky ones” were those who were taken as prisoners back to Babylonia. It seemed the People of Israel had become like those dead bones strewn across the valley floor.

Faced with this pain, it seems reasonable that some Jews began to lament. “God can’t help us,” some said. “God won’t help us,” others argued. “There is no God. God is punishing us for our sins. We are here to rot and die in the desert. We have become like dry bones,” a few argued. Into this comes the Prophet Ezekiel. Listen again to his amazing story. And remember, since God is not a magician, this can’t be a historically accurate story. Instead, it is a teaching story which we have to figure out for ourselves.

Continue reading “God is not a magician: so why a valley of dead bones?”

Justice of breaking boundaries

I’ve been playing a lot of video games lately. I didn’t grow up spending hours on video games: it is something I am still learning to do. In my youth, we didn’t have remote controls let alone Pac-Man. But my husband did grow up playing video games, and now it is something we can do together. Or at least it is something we can take turns doing while we sit on the couch. I figure it is a good way to spend time with him. And scientists say that we can delay the effects of aging by learning how to do new things. Take it from me, I am learning how to do new things.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been playing a new game called Horizon Zero Dawn. The plot revolves around Aloy, a hunter and archer living in a world overrun by robots. Having been outcast her whole life, she sets out to discover how she came to be an outcast. For her tribe is a matriarchy, and since Aloy doesn’t have a Mother, she is cast out of the tribe. She is shunned: members of the tribe can’t talk to her or help her or have any contact with her. Those are the tribe’s rules: it is taboo to break them.

Today’s gospel is about violating taboos – about breaking boundaries – to make justice. Today Jesus shows us what’s really important, and his teaching comes at a time when we need to hear and hearken to his words about doing justice even when it breaks the rules.

This is an important lesson to learn in a week when a spokesman for the administration declared Meals on Wheels to be a failure for not moving people off public assistance. He apparently doesn’t understand that the people who depend on Meals on Wheels are too old or too sick to work their way out of poverty. He doesn’t see that the correct metric for assessing Meals on Wheels is how many people they feed not how many people no longer need help. Remember, Jesus said: feed my sheep. And he fed a crowd of thousands with a few fish and a little bit of bread. Continue reading “Justice of breaking boundaries”

We are all Nicodemus

Nicodemus came by night to talk with Jesus the Rabbi. During the day Nicodemus was a Pharisee; a leader of the Jews; a respected man in first century Israel.

Yet Nicodemus came by night to talk with Jesus the rebel rabbi; the teacher of the poor, the prostitutes; the tax collectors. Perhaps Nicodemus came because he faced as difficult time as we do now: perhaps Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas – the new rulers of their nation’s life – were the Bannon, Sessions and Trump of first century Jerusalem. Then as now, a new team of leaders shared a profound disdain for human suffering. Then as now, a nation was led by a deeply elitist cult: men who were willing to inflict more suffering to establish their rule and enhance their personal wealth. Then as now, the spiritual path to follow the God of Abraham and Sarah was hard to discern: good people hoped for better times and longed for a deeper spiritual life.

Nicodemus came by night to visit Jesus, a rabble rousing rabbi who preached and lived a life that was different than any of the high priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Perhaps that is what drew Nicodemus to Jesus: a hope for finding a new way forward to fulfill God’s vision for the People of Israel. And yet their discussion seems to go off the tracks from the first.

Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And Nicodemus misunderstands: he interprets this literally asking “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

But Jesus isn’t speaking in literal terms: he repeats “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” It is hard for Nicodemus to hear this message. Everything you have learned about how to work the system, how to get along, how to succeed in business and life is, Jesus says wrong. Instead of being literally limited by your roots in this world, Jesus says, you must be born in a new way of life; a way that is rooted in the Spirit of Good. And Nicodemus answers with a series of questions. Continue reading “We are all Nicodemus”