7/31/12

Faith and Its Opposite



Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 24, 2012)

Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of the future or of an outcome we cannot see: a diagnosis of disease, perhaps, or an impending operation; the loss of a job or the tragic loss of a loved one. During moments like these we are told to hold onto our faith in God: that God is with us, and that God will be our solid rock to stand on. These are good sentiments, of course, and are usually said to us by friends and loved ones with the best of intentions. And yet it is during these times that we, like Job, have difficulty finding comfort in our faith. Instead what we experience is doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps we even become angry with God, questioning, “Why?”

It is times like these, when I find myself struggling with the human condition, particularly in a pastoral situation where I am expected to have just the right words to say at just the right moment, that I take great comfort in something that Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh (Episcopal Church of Scotland), once said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”

I realize that this might seem counterintuitive on first hearing. It’s not typically what one hears from a pulpit, especially here in prosperous America, where many evangelical peddlers of popular religion will tell you the very opposite, i.e., that faith is certainty, and that doubt is the enemy – the very antithesis of faith. There are many churches on the American landscape that would be happy to tell you exactly what you should believe about any point of Christian doctrine or on any pressing social issue. They might even tell you how to vote, and do so with the utmost certainty that God is on the side of a particular candidate for public office or on the side of a particular political party. As much as we might think that we don’t like it when someone else tells us what to believe or how to vote, the paradox is that these are the very churches in America that are experiencing booming success.

And still Bishop Holloway’s statement bears repeating: The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.

Isn’t this what we learn from today’s lessons from Scripture? That faith is not a system of ready-made answers or a list of comforting sentiments that we pull out when we need them? That faith, while not to be confused with doubt and uncertainty, nonetheless must still exist in tension with doubt and uncertainty else it would not be faith?

Consider our passage from Job. You remember Job. He served God his entire life. He was faithful, stalwart, never failing in any of his duties or obligations to God as a master, husband, or father. He was greatly blessed by God, with lands, flocks, herds and sons. His righteousness is so noteworthy that even the angels in heaven take notice, including the adversary, Satan. As the story unfolds in the Book of Job, God asks Satan his opinion on Job. Satan answers that Job is pious only because God has put a “wall around him” to protect his favorite servant. However, if God were to allow Job to be afflicted, then he would surely curse God. God then gives Satan permission to test Job’s righteousness by afflicting him with curses. The story of Job is especially intriguing in that, while the reader knows the reason for his afflictions, Job himself is never made privy to “what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Tragedy falls upon Job. All of Job’s possessions are taken away or destroyed: 500 yoke of oxen and 500 donkeys are carried off by Sabeans; 7,000 sheep are burned up by “the fire of God which fell from the sky”; 3,000 camels are stolen by the Chaldeans; his house is destroyed by a mighty wind, killing off Job’s offspring. At this point Job shaves his head, tears his clothes, and says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return: the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” After all this, Job still does not curse God. Yet even then, his tribulations are not over. Job is then afflicted with dreadful boils. He is reduced to scraping his skin with broken pottery. His own wife prompts him to “curse God, and die.” But Job answers, “Shall we receive good from God and shall not receive evil?”

These are statements of a man of faith, and YET, if we had only the above statements to go on we might be tempted to equate faith with certainty. But as we see later on, Job was anything but certain. He struggled with his faith, he struggled through his faith. The messiness of doubt and uncertainty were very much a part of his faith.

Three of his friends come to console him. After seven days of sitting with him in silence, Job finally breaks his silence by cursing the day he was born. Each of his friends then take it in turns to convince Job that he must have sinned grievously before God, else he would not have been cursed. They exhort him to repent and be restored. But Job knows that he was blameless; he becomes angry with his friends, he becomes angry with God. He demands that God give him an answer.

When God finally does reveal himself to Job, he does not provide the answer that Job demands. Instead, God poses a series of rhetorical questions to Job, (questions that we all must face):

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Essentially God asks, “Who do you think you are?” Even after God reveals his glory to him, Job is not given answers, but rather he is left with mystery. He is left to ponder the majesty of God. His questions remain unanswered and will remain unanswered. But in the “mystery” he discovers something about himself in relation to God, something that only faith can reveal: Job experiences his utter dependence upon his Creator.

Again, it bears repeating: The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.

Sometimes there are no answers, at least ones that we are privy to. And sometimes the questions, or our struggles with the questions, are more important than any answer that we can come up with, because, in the human realm, all answers are merely preliminary; all “truths” merely provisional. 

The story in our Gospel passage also confronts us with a question, one that the disciples are left with to ponder: Who is this Jesus?

The scene is a familiar one. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat while his disciples, fearing for their lives, struggle to maintain control of their tiny vessel during a ferocious storm. As the boat is being tossed by the waves and begins to take on water, they finally wake Jesus and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus then rebukes the winds and the waves: “Peace! Be still!” And a dead calm comes over the sea. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” It is at this point that we see the question of faith. The disciples are filled with awe – confronted with mystery – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The Church answers this question quite eloquently in the Creeds. For example, the Nicene Creed confesses “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.” But what does any of this really mean? These statements, as precise, as eloquent, as grounded as they are in the New Testament witness and in the faith experience of generations of generations Christians, are merely approximations of what we must ultimately assign to mystery. If the Christian faith could be reduced to the mere assent to a set of propositions, however eloquent, then what have we to do with faith? What happens when those eloquent propositions fail to answer the questions that often confront us? Why did my child die? Why do I have cancer? Why did I lose my job? What is the purpose of living?

Our “beliefs” (as opposed to our faith) are only propositions. They are not the objects of faith. We are not saved by doctrine or creeds or even the liturgy. Rather they are, at best, but witnesses to the object of our faith, pointing us to him – to Jesus Christ. “Who is this Jesus?” That is the ultimate question, which only faith can discover as it struggles to experience him, as the disciples did on that fateful day on the boat.

So we are left with these two questions: “Who am I? Who is Jesus?”  These are the questions of faith. They challenge us to think big, to think beyond ourselves. They also challenge us to examine our innermost selves, to involve God. “Who am I?” and “Who is Jesus?” Such questions are life- and faith-changing. Look at Job. Look at the disciples. They were each and all forever changed, forever clarified, by these questions.

7/18/12

Clarity, Full Disclosure, and A Way Forward: Standing In the Wake of General Convention & the Approval of Same-Sex Blessings


The following is a summary of an address given on Sunday, July 15, 2012, by the Rev. Daniel K. Dunlap, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Tomball, TX. The intention of the address was to clarify the actions of General Convention and to pave a way forward in mission as a parish in the Diocese of Texas of The Episcopal Church. 

Last week the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church met in Indianapolis. General Convention is the legislative body that gathers every three years to consider the church’s common mission, to share its common concerns, and to order its common life. As you can imagine in a church as theologically and ideologically diverse as The Episcopal Church, it can sometimes be a contentious gathering, producing plenty of fodder for reporters, critics, and even casual observers to feast on. This year proved to be no exception with the approval of I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing – a provisional rite for same-sex blessings. Many national news outlets reported that The Episcopal Church was the first major Christian body in the USA to adopt such a rite.

No doubt many of you are asking, why us? Why must we be the first? The answer may be as simple as the kind of church we are. We are church that invites a wide diversity of belief and practice; a church that does not have a litmus test for membership; a church that unites around the historic creeds, yet affords room for each member to form their own conscience. Perhaps more importantly, we are a church that has a reputation of being open to the disenfranchised of our society. It might also have something to do with our size. We may be oldest of our nation’s denominations, but we are also, paradoxically, one of the smallest. On a local level, it is easier to hear the voices of the disenfranchised in smaller, family-sized parishes than larger ones; and, like it or not, we are a denomination of small, family-sized parishes.

Yet despite being the “first” major church to approve such a rite, a good case could be made that the actions of General Convention did not really clarify or achieve the much sought after consensus on issues of sexuality that we have been seeking for decades. Moreover, it doesn’t help matters when the actions of General Convention have been intentionally misreported and misrepresented by those who should know better.

So in the interest of clarity and of full disclosure (i.e. what the reporters won't report), let me attempt to outline for you what hasn’t changed in The Episcopal Church, so that perhaps we can better understand and deal with those things that have.


1. General Convention did not change the theology of the Book of Common Prayer.

The same-sex blessing liturgy approved last week does not add to or amend the Book of Common Prayer, nor does it alter the theology contained therein. Holy matrimony remains a civil and sacramental union between one man and one woman. Rather, what General Convention approved was a provisional rite. As I understand things, a provisional rite is intended for a specific pastoral need or concern, in this case a pastoral provision for gay and lesbian couples living in committed life-long relationships. Because it is a provisional rite it needs only a simple majority vote from both houses of General Convention. (In contrast, a “trial liturgy” requires a super-majority since it represents a potential change to the doctrine and worship of the church).


2. General Convention did not approve or adopt a rite for same-sex marriage.

What was approved last week was a blessing rite, not a rite of matrimony. The name of the rite -- I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing -- is intended to convey this intent. Granted, this distinction may be confusing, and the fact that it will be used in those states where same-sex marriage or civil unions are legally sanctioned does not help to clarify our church’s position. But let’s not forget that The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church. We bless many things, some of greater and some of lesser importance. Many gay and lesbian couples wish to have their life-long relationships blessed within the context of their local worshiping communities, and General Convention has responded to this desire.

3. General Convention did not change what has been the practice of The Episcopal Church for quite some time.

Back in 2003, the 74th General Convention declared that “local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.” So-called “local option,” whereby bishops grant special permission to perform same-sex blessings in their own dioceses, has been in force for years. The new rite serves only to bring accountability to this situation. Otherwise local option is still in effect as General Convention did not grant blanket permission. Bishops still govern their own dioceses, and explicit permission is still needed to perform same-sex blessings. The House of Bishops even added a conscience clause to ensure that no clergy would ever be compelled to participate in same-sex blessings. So, in reality, apart from the provision of a uniform rite, there has been no substantial change in practice from what has been going on for quite some time in The Episcopal Church. 



Where do we go from here?

It is natural at this point to ask how the actions of General Convention affect our parish. Where does our diocese stand? What about our bishops? Where do we stand as a parish? A look at our context and circumstances should help clarify where we are as a parish and how we will move forward from here.

OUR STATE (Texas): 


We live in a state that does not recognize either same-sex marriage or same-sex civil unions. It is not even possible for gay and lesbian couples married in other states to secure a divorce in Texas. Barring an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I do not see this situation changing any time soon, either in Texas or most other states of the Union. Ironically, this means that the greatest obstacle facing those who support same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church is not what remains of the stubborn traditionalist lobby in the church, but rather the distance left in the uphill, state-by-state, battle for civil sanction and recognition.

OUR DIOCESE: 


The Diocese of Texas is as diverse as the church at large, but in the balance it is generally more conservative with most of its parishes and clergy continuing to hold to a traditional view of marriage. However, a significant and probably growing number of clergy, laity, and parishes are in favor of some kind of pastoral provision for gay and lesbian members, be it a blessing ceremony for same-sex couples or civil and sacramental recognition of same-sex marriage. This means, of course, that we are compelled to find a way forward together as conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives.

OUR BISHOPS:

Both Bishops Doyle and Harrison were among the 41 bishops who voted against the provisional rite when it came before the House of Bishops. Bishop Doyle has also gone on record as opposing any change to the Prayer Book’s theology and definition of marriage. However, he is committed to working both with traditionalists and progressives. Last May, in full expectation of General Convention’s approval of the new rite, Bishop Doyle unveiled a plan to work with those parishes who might wish to use it. Initially, only two churches (St. Stephen’s, Houston and St. David’s, Austin) will be given permission, followed by other parishes at a later date. In the meantime Bishop Doyle has assured the clergy that no one would ever be compelled to participate in same-sex ceremonies and indicated that rectors and parishes were free to establish their own local policies.

YOUR RECTOR (yours truly): 


Last week, in the wake of General Convention’s decision to approve the provisional rite, I outlined to the vestry the following position:

(1) In agreement with the Book of Common Prayer, I affirm holy matrimony as a union, both civil and sacramental, between one man and one woman.

To clarify, my position is not so much about what I am against as it is about what I am for. At this point in my life and ministry, I am not comfortable to go beyond the limits of what the church has taught for the last two thousand years. I believe that marriage between one man and one woman is unique. It is the very metaphor used in the New Testament to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church, and thus is sacramental. Unlike same-sex unions, it is also potentially generative, and thus the only possible context in which children can live together with both natural parents as a family.

(2) As things stand now, I cannot take part in any same-sex blessing ceremony nor will I seek permission for Good Shepherd to conduct same-sex blessings.

In the wider discussion within the church, there is simply not enough theological clarity or cogency in these matters to justify in my mind any attempt to navigate our parish in any new direction, particularly since the official doctrine of the church remains as it was before the approval of the new rite. Therefore, not wishing to bring any more confusion to our context, I simply cannot participate in any blessing ceremony that might affirm or imply in the minds of many that the union between two same-sex people is equivalent or analogous to holy matrimony.

(3) I will not turn anyone away from membership or deny pastoral care to any person who desires to worship/unite with our parish. We will continue to welcome all to Christ’s table.

For me this last statement is crucial. To understand this point is to understand the heart of your rector. It is not my practice to turn away from pastoral care any person who desires or needs it, be they straight, gay, or transgendered. We will continue to be a parish that practices radical hospitality. For me, this issue is not about sex or sexual identity. I have ministered to many homosexuals during the course of my ministry, and, accordingly, my views have evolved over the years. I gave up on the notion long ago that sexual orientation is something that a person necessarily “chooses” or that homosexuality is something that can be “cured.” In short, I do not believe that homosexual orientation is intrinsically evil. I even support the state recognition of civil unions for same-sex couples. So while there are many ministers out there who are willing to condemn a person for their sexual orientation, let me be crystal clear: I am not one of them.

That being said, I do believe that the traditional family is the ideal for a healthy society. However, please do not mistake this as a na├»ve suggestion that the natural family is immune to dysfunction and/or disintegration, or that non-traditional families (of whatever configuration) are not a blessing to our society. We are all keenly aware that traditional families often fail, and we have all experienced, to one degree or another, the deleterious effects of divorce and broken homes on society. We also know that where the traditional family might fail, the non-traditional family can be a place of redemption, grace and new beginnings, and thus, in these ways, are just as sacramental and worthy of celebration as the traditional family. Indeed, let us never forget that the New Testament employs “adoption” as one of its primary metaphors for salvation.

Finally, let me just say that, despite our controversies and the criticisms we receive from the rest of the Christian world, I am truly thankful to be a priest in The Episcopal Church. Granted, these issues are difficult to process, difficult to talk about, difficult to resolve. As a church we have been talking about matters of human sexuality for decades, and full consensus still seems beyond our reach. Yet I believe that God has uniquely called our church, both conservatives and liberals, to continue this conversation and to reach the very consensus that for the time being seems to elude us.

7/11/11

The "Parable of the Sower" (or "Parable of the Soils") -- Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


I spent the summers of my late teens and early twenties working for a large farming operation. My particular division was crop production, where we produced wheat, barley, alfalfa, soybean, hay, and, of course, corn. There were times (like harvest) when it was really quite exciting; but in reality most of my summers were spent preparing soil for planting, which meant picking rocks; hours and hours of picking rocks, walking through acres and acres of freshly plowed fields. In an area famous for its limestone quarries, you can imagine just how many rocks a freshly plowed field can produce. With all the modern technology available today for field preparation (tractors, plows, discs), guess what? Rocks still have to be picked up by hand!

The parable before us today (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) is typically known as the “Parable of the Sower.” Yet perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it the “Parable of the Soils,” because what is really interesting about this story are the various conditions of each of the soils.

The first soil we encounter is the soil of a beaten-down path, the kind one can still imagine surrounding crop fields even today. The soil is hardened, not open to life. You can well imagine a sower casting seed into a field by hand (as was common in ancient times), and some happens to fall onto the pathway beside it. Obviously it does not provide a nurturing environment for seed. Yet even this kind of soil has its usefulness: it's good for walking on!

The second soil in our parable is the “rocky ground.” For obvious reasons, this is my favorite. Back in my rock-picking days, it was quite easy to see which parts of a field were picked properly. As soon as the seed-corn germinated, the seed in rocky ground sprang up quickly because rocks hold moisture, especially after a good rain. But over time the parts of a field that are rocky tend to be sparse, while the clean parts of a field flourish and produce more corn. This is because the moisture held by rocks quickly evaporates when the sun beats down on the soil causing the newly germinated plants to wither and die.

Our third soil reminds me of many an English countryside. Those who have ever traveled in England will surely remember the countless hedgerows that separate pastures and fields, marking off ancient boundary lines and providing barriers for pastoral animals like sheep and cattle. Obviously, any seed corn that would fall into a hedgerow, though protected from the sun’s menacing heat and provided with plenty of moisture, would be robbed of the nutrients that it needed to grow to maturity, having to compete with the thorns and thickets that make up hedgerows.

As Jesus explains to his disciples, each of these three soils represents a common response to the good news of the kingdom that the disciples would experience as they went out to sow the message of their Lord. We can readily see this truth for ourselves. Many are they who respond to the Gospel with the indifference of a well-trodden path that has just been seeded with corn. Even before the soil of their hearts has a chance to respond, "Satan" comes to snatch it away, never knowing the better. Then there are those who hear the Word, respond with the excitement of newfound discovery, only to have their faith wither and die because there is no depth in their experience. More frighteningly are those whose response is represented by the hedgerow. Their faith grows yet never comes to maturity as the strangling concerns of their lives rob them of essential nutrients.

But, my friends, there is a fourth soil – the good soil. And what is it that makes it good? Is it that the soil is any better than the other? Is there some special quality about it? Is it endowed with the principle of life while the other soils are not? Is there something supernatural in it, perhaps? No, any farmer (ancient or modern) can tell you that the difference between good soil and bad soil is not necessarily in what the soil is made of, but rather in how it is prepared. To produce a crop of a hundredfold, of sixty-fold or of thirty-fold takes much soil preparation. Back in my farming days, we had to fertilize, plow, pick rocks, disc, pick more rocks, rake, and pick even more rocks before we had a field of good soil.

It takes a lot of hard work to prepare a field for seed; it takes a lot of hard work to prepare a heart for the Gospel. Many of you know this from experience as no doubt you have friends and family members within whose hearts you have been picking rocks for years. And you know this corporately as parish as well. Good Shepherd has been working the ground of this community for many years, and has seen many fruitful harvests.

Yet even despite our best efforts, sometimes it seems that others come into the fields we've been working on for many years and proceed to tread them underfoot. Other times, it's as if the soil itself produces a fresh crop of rocks that need to be picked. And thorns and thistles are always looking for the right opportunity to invade a field to rob the rightful seed of its essential nutrients. But don't be disheartened. A farmer's work is never done. Each year we must continue to work the fields, pick the rocks, trim the hedgerows, and prepare the soil. Remember: the life is in the seed, not the soil. And every farmer knows that there really is no such thing as bad soil; just poor preparation.

5/22/11

The Most Inclusive of Exclusive Claims (John 14:6)



Perhaps it is because of the magnitude of the issue – the clash of competing systems of faith – that I find myself more aware, painfully aware, of the divisions that that persist in the Body of Christ. Our divisions are not simply a matter of competing doctrinal systems. Rather, they are more often than not caused by allowing systems, theology, doctrine, or whatever pet-viewpoint we espouse (political, social, or ideological) to define our loyalties and to shape our relationships in such a way as to exclude those with whom we may differ.

In a paradoxical way our Gospel this morning may bring clarity to this point (John 14:1-14). Here portrayed for us by the author are Jesus’s last words to his closest friends, his disciples, on the night of his betrayal and arrest. And herein is one of the most memorable sayings recorded in the New Testament: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). Immediately we are struck by the weight of this claim. It matters little whether we take them as the actual words of Jesus or the interpretive gloss of a gospel writer. These words, and its exclusive claim that Jesus is the unique savior of the world, simply cannot be dismissed, set aside or explained away.

Jesus is not portrayed by our author as saying that he is “a way” (i.e. one of many possible ways), or “a truth” (i.e. one of many possible truths), or “a life” (i.e. one possible way of life); but rather, THE way, THE truth, and THE life. The language here is intentionally exclusive. To put it in the bluntest terms possible: according to our Gospel, all paths simply do not lead to Heaven.

If that were not enough, Jesus goes on to say in the very next statement, “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” Again, these words could not be more exclusive. The claim here is that Jesus is the unique revelation of God to the world. In our modern day, so pre-occupied we are with so-called tolerant speech, inclusive language, and political-correctness, these words could not be more alarming, more painful to our ears. They are downright scandalous, especially when invoked, as they are by many Christians, to rationalize an exclusive vision of the kingdom of God.

Yet I contend that this passage forces us to grapple with the paradox that is the Gospel. Indeed, if read on a superficial level it is impossible to make sense of the exclusive claim of Jesus – “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – and not come to the conclusion that very few people in this world today, or at any time in the past or in the future, will actually be saved. How then can we reconcile these words to the other majestic statement in the Gospel of John? –“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

Indeed, herein lies the paradox. It is only when we read this claim in light of the all-encompassing, all-inclusive and universal work of Christ on the Cross and in the Resurrection (i.e. in light of verses like John 3:16) that we can begin to make sense of it. It is precisely because Jesus is THE way, THE truth and THE life that the Cross and the empty tomb of Easter are good news for all people, every person, and each race, gender and age.

Jesus did not die just for Christians. He died for all. Jesus is not the Savior of Roman Catholics only. He is not the savior of the Protestants only. And he certainly is not the savior of Episcopalians only. He is the savior of ALL.

Those of you who are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia , no doubt recall the last book in the series, called The Last Battle – which portrays the final apostasy and the resulting apocalypse of Lewis’ fantasy world of Narnia. Those familiar the Narnian tales will recall that the Christ-figure in the story is a Lion named Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor Beyond the Sea, who created Narnia. In the first of the series of seven books – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Aslan goes to the extent of dying a humiliating death on behalf of one of the main characters, a child from our own world named Edmund, to save him from the captivity of the White Witch. Like Christ, he also overcomes death by being resurrected, and ushers in a new age for Narnia.

At the end of the series in the last book, Narnia is in conflict both internally and externally. Narnia’s hostile neighbor to the South, a mysterious foreign country called “Calormen,”attempts to conquer the entire world in the name of their god, Tash. Tash is a false god, who even makes an appearance in the final book in the form of a terrible winged Dinosaur-like demon. The Calormenes form an unholy alliance with a few treacherous and greedy subjects of Narnia, in particular an Ape named “Swift,” who fools the good inhabitants of Narnia into believing that Aslan has returned and that Aslan and Tash are really two names for the same God.

The final battle of Lewis’ fantasy world would take too long for me to tell. But the story ends with the de-creation and the dissolution of the Narnian world, and the dividing of all of the creatures and inhabitants, both past and present, into two groups – one which goes off to disappear into Aslan’s shadow (into outer darkness and separation) and the other which is invited into “Aslan’s country” (which of course is Lewis’ metaphor for heaven). The main characters of the story, all children from our world, are surprised to discover that a Calormene warrior – a worshipper of Tash -- is also among those who have entered into Aslan’s country. His name is Emeth, and they ask him to tell his story, of how he too had ended up in Aslan’s country. Emeth then proceedsto tell his story:

…I fell at Aslan’s feet and thought, "Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him." Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, "Son, thou art welcome."

But I said, "Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash."
He answered, "Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me."

Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, "Lord, it is then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?"

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, "It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.

Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew me not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?"

I said, "Lord, thou knowest how much I understand." But I said also (for the truth constrained me), "Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days."

"Beloved," said the Glorious One, "unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

Then he breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much, but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in.


In the final analysis, Jesus’ exclusive role as Savior of the world – the way, the truth, and the life – turns out to be the most inclusive and most unifying principle there is! Systems of theology and doctrine cannot unite; denominations cannot unite; bishops cannot unite; ideology cannot unite; force-of-arms or military threats cannot unite; politics certainly cannot unite. Indeed, the only thing that can unite the human race is the God who became human in the Person of his Son – the One who assumed our nature, experienced our trials and temptations, shared our sufferings and afflictions, bore our sins and transgressions, died our death, and raised us up again with him.

10/11/10

Sermon Outline (Pentecost 20)

Old Testament: 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c (Story of Naaman the Leper)
Psalm: 111
Epistle: 2 Timothy 2.8-15
Gospel: Luke 17.11-19 (Story of the Ten Lepers)


1. From the realization of need comes the recognition of grace.

2. From the recognition of grace comes the opportunity for thanksgiving.

3. From thanksgiving comes service.

St. Francis' Sermon to the Birds: Read at Good Shepherd's Animal Blessing Service (October 9, 2010)



My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.

Saint Francis of Assisi - 1220

10/4/10

A Lack of Faith or Faithfulness? -- Pentecost 19 (October 3, 2010)



OT: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
PSALM: Psalm 37:1-10
EPISTLE:2 Timothy 1:1-14
GOSPEL: Luke 17:5-10

Imagine one of your children using their “lack of faith” as an excuse for not performing a task or doing a chore. For instance a parent might ask: “Did you do your homework?” “I didn’t have enough faith to do it,” says the child. “Did you take out the trash?” “I didn’t have enough faith.” “Did you feed the dog?” “I didn’t have enough faith.” Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? What does FAITH have to do with taking out the trash? Or doing homework?

And yet what is our favorite excuse for not doing the things that we are called to do as disciples of Christ? – Our lack of faith! Amazing, isn’t it? This is precisely what Jesus rebukes his disciples for in our Gospel (Luke 17:5-10):

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” (vv. 5-6)

The meaning of this passage is often misunderstood. Jesus was NOT criticizing his disciples for their lack of faith; i.e. he was not saying that their faith was less than a mustard seed’s worth. The amount of their FAITH was not the issue. Rather, FAITHFULNESS was the issue.

To help us understand this better, it would do well to consider this request in context. In the passage immediately preceding the apostles’ request, Jesus had instructed them about the extent of forgiveness:

“So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."
(vv. 3-4)

We all know how difficult it is to forgive someone who has sinned against us. But seven times a day? Is it any wonder the apostles exclaim, “Increase our faith!”?

“No,” says Jesus. “Faith is not the issue.” They had enough faith. Even with faith as small as a mustard seed they could say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would be so (cf. v. 4). Rather, what they lacked was faithfulness – i.e. acting in obedience to what Christ was calling them to do; surrendering their will to Christ’s. This point is brought home further in what Jesus says next:

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" (vv. 7-10)

One of the things I find intriguing about this passage is that it is one of the very few places in the Gospel accounts where the immediate followers of Christ are called “apostles.” (The term “apostle” is used many times elsewhere in the NT, but not normally in the Gospels.) Why might this be? Perhaps it has something to do with meaning of the word. The usual term “disciple” means “one who is taught,” whereas the term apostle means “one who is sent” – that is to say, “sent on assignment.” Perhaps Luke, our evangelist, is reminding us that Jesus’ followers are not merely students; rather, they are entrusted with a task, an assignment. Jesus’ followers are “sent-ones” – entrusted and commissioned with the task of advancing the Kingdom of God. This includes us! We would do well to remember that, like Jesus’ immediate followers, we too are “disciples” in the fullest sense of the word – perhaps not “Apostles” with a capital “A,” but certainly “little apostles” within our own spheres of influence, entrusted and commissioned with the task of proclaiming the good news of Christ, not only with our lips and in our lives.

I highly doubt that any of us are called to the task of uprooting mulberry trees. So don’t go home and try it. Faith is not a magic act. Yet if God ever did call us to uproot mulberry trees, we certainly have the faith to do it. That’s Jesus’ point! It doesn’t take a great deal of faith to accomplish great things. It only takes faithfulness -- stepping out in obedience with the faith we already have!

So why do we scoff at doing the things that we are called to do? Why do we continue to use our favorite excuse? (I hear this excuse all the time...I use this excuse myself!) Why do we find faithfulness so difficult?

“Oh, I tried loving my neighbor, but I don’t think I have enough faith.”

“I can’t share my faith with others or invite them to church, I don’t have enough faith!”

“I don’t have enough faith to stand up for what is right and just.”

“I just don’t have enough faith to make a pledge to the church.”

(Ah, yes, the pledging thing again…you perhaps were wondering when I was going to bring this up!)

Yes, we’ve been talking a lot about stewardship these past weeks. But if what I have said about pledging hasn’t quite resonated with you, then I implore you to reflect on what you heard from those of your fellow parishioners who gave their stewardship testimonies in the last three weeks. The stories differed in the details, but there was a common thread that ran through them all. Their stories can be summarized as follows:

• Each story told of economic struggles and hard times. (We all struggle from time to time to make ends meet.)

• Nevertheless, each one told of how they were challenged in the midst of struggle to respond in faith to Christ’s call to begin a discipline of giving. Each stepped out in the faith that they had, perhaps only a baby-step at first, but a step nonetheless.

• Each person found along the way that God continued to meet all of their needs with each step in faith – i.e. they proved faithful to the call and God rewarded their faithfulness.

• Finally, each told of how their faith actually increased along the way.

The irony is that what the apostles asked for – MORE FAITH – is the very thing that each faithful disciple (or "little apostle") receives along the way when they step out in faith and obedience, and submit their wills to the will of Christ.