Pointers of Faith

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Easter 2A

6548846465_1c747860eeIf read out of it’s proper context, this Sunday’s reading from Acts would make it seem like Jesus’ disciples had really moved on after just about a week since Jesus’ death. We’re actually well beyond Good Friday when a now-articulate and faithful Peter steps up and delivers his famous sermon to the various Israelites in Jerusalem.

Actually this reading comes from the day when the Holy Spirit comes with a roar and lays on the disciples in the upper room like a tongue of fire. We call this day Pentecost. Jews call it Shavout or the Feast of Weeks. It occurs five weeks after Easter for Christians (hence Pente-cost) and on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan for Jews.  Jews remember Shavout as the day they received the law from God. Christians sometimes recall this as the birthdate of the church.

We still have to wait four-and-a-half weeks for Pentecost, but let’s see what our lectionary might be telling us with this portion of Peter’s speech that day.

Peter declares, “Jesus, a man who did groovy stuff among you dirty rotten people in Jerusalem, was handed over to you not by accident, but by part of God’s definite plan and foreknowledge. You crucified and killed him through others’ hands, but you didn’t win; God raised him up and freed him from death. When your hero David spoke of the one with whom the Lord is always present, the one whose flesh lives in hope, the one who will not be abandoned to Hades, the one who would not experience corruption…yeah…that was Jesus that David was talking about.”

“You messed up, but your mistakes were not as fatal as you thought. He is alive.”

Having seen the risen Christ in the upper room and having encountered the powerful Holy Spirit in that same room, Peter speaks with newfound confidence and faith. Peter calls everyone present to be witnesses to the truth that although some would like to think that they can take God’s role of “god-ness” into their own hands, God alone is God, and Jesus is the one through whom freedom from death has been proclaimed for the entire world…

…and “all of us are witnesses.”

But that’s not true, really. We’re not all witnesses. The crowd gathered really only has a parlor trick with different languages (caused by the tongue of fire) to go on—and I’m not sure, but I think that the Rosetta Stone may have been in a beta stage at this time. This is not to mention that us reading it are even further removed from any kind of physical evidence that any of this ever happened at all!

We are not all witnesses—not in the traditional sense, that is.

Skip to the Gospel for Sunday—Thomas hears his friends tell him that Jesus returned in flesh and blood, but he demands to touch Jesus for himself. A week later, Jesus returns to offer Thomas that chance to witness Jesus’ return for himself.

The text doesn’t say whether or not Thomas actually touches Jesus—Thomas makes his request, Jesus invites him to touch, and Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” Does he believe by simply seeing? Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because he has seen, not because he has touched. Did even Thomas make a leap of faith that day in the upper room?

Anyone who believes anything beyond what we can see, taste, touch, smell, or hear takes this sort of leap of faith. And even for these things, we can become witnesses. I would witness to Antonio’s love for me, but I can hardly manage to prove any such thing. I can provide a list of pointers that for me suggest this love, but ultimately I do not know the “truth” in the strictest/factual sense of that word. The pointers might be the way he treats me, the way I feel in response to his company, the gestures of kindness he performs like cooking dinner and walking the dog. I (mostly) unconsciously add these pointers together and believe that he loves me.

Thomas, Peter, the rest of the disciples, and any others who have come to believe something about God have had to take whatever pointers they have experienced and to use them to form their faith.

We’re working with broad concepts here like faith and belief, and if you feel like the semantics game is tripping you up (it often does for me), you might check out Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian. He redefines some of these terms to hopefully inject them with the kind of meaning that washes away some of the baggage they’ve collected over the years.

Our question this week, as we listen to Peter and have healthy doubts like Thomas, might be: What pointers in your life make you suspect that God might love you, and how can you be a witness to those pointers in a way that encourages and lifts up others? Don’t worry about proving anything—that’s not the point.

Even Jesus says that those who are lucky enough to have come to believe without seeing can count themselves blessed; most of us have to go on without proof.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal website is www.FatherFarr.com.

Image: ©2011 Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology, Flickr.

Experts Need Not Apply

churchsign - no experts

by the Rev. Ken Howard

In my discussions with congregational and diocesan leaders around the Church of late, I have noticed a shift in the conversation.

More and more leaders are beginning to face the facts about their congregations. More are beginning to acknowledge that, at best, they are on a plateau and that, at worst, they are on a slow but slippery downward slope: not just in membership numbers, but congregational vitality and engagement. Another positive shift is that fewer are clinging to the old canard that there are “other ways to grow than in actual number,” recognizing that readiness to grow is a powerful indicator that talk of willingness to change is more than lip service. These are healthy signs. Getting over our resistance to facing the reality of our condition is half the battle for the future of the Church.  As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

But apparently, Jesus forgot to add, “but first it will really piss you off…” Indeed, while I hear more acceptance of the need for growth and change, I’m not sure those same leaders have come to terms with what actual growth and change will cost them. No ExpertsBecause the next thing I hear is often a request for expert advice: solutions, techniques, fixes, specific changes that can be made to worship services, welcome programs, websites, or whatever. Implement once, take the heat, and be done with it…problem solved. And while I can understand this desire (even cosmetic changes to church traditions can inadvertently wound sacred cows and wind up their protectors), this “call in the experts impulse” is ultimately self-defeating. Because what we are facing is a problem that experts can’t solve.

Why?

We are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift in what it means to be and to do Church. And as saying goes, “When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes to zero.”  When journeying through a paradigm shift there are no experts, only fellow learners. Since no one knows where the paths we are on will ultimately take us, all of us are pioneers. When we find ourselves in such a situation, we don’t need expert advice. Rather, what we need is to learn how to be ecclesiastical entrepreneurs.

PSB20 - Paradigm Shift leads to Back to Zero

What is an ecclesiastical entrepreneur?

To be effective ecclesiastical entrepreneur we have to learn how to learn and we may have to hone some qualities that we may not have had to exercise much in the past. We need to learn to discern what God is up to in the world around us: to sniff out how the Holy Spirit is already at work in the communities in which our congregations live and move and have their being. We need to set aside our assumptions about how things are supposed to work and what we are supposed to do, and instead ask ourselves a lot more questions about why we exist and for what purpose God has planted us in our specific time and place.

Discernment in a time of great change requires of us higher tolerance for ambiguity. Because we are still looking and listening through the filters of our old paradigm, we need to accept that God may call us to act before we are certain of what God wants, and that if we wait for certainty before we act, the Holy Spirit may move on without us long before we are ready. We need to be willing to dream big, start small, fail often, learn fast (especially from our failures), and repeat as necessary.

Since what we are going through is, in effect, the death of one way of being Church and birthing of a new way, perhaps it would not be too far off base to compare what is going on in the Church to the old Kubler-Ross stages of dying.  If so, we are making good progress. We have made it through anger and denial, and have entered into bargaining. Our journey through our paradigm shift has come more than halfway.  All we have to do is make it through depression (some may already be there) to true acceptance, and we’ll have made it to the other side. And that will be a good place to be, because we know that if we allow God to walk with us through death, the result will be resurrection.

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A Good Friday Prayer

by Ken Howard

Forgive me, Lord,

for I know not

what I

do.

Despite my best intentions,

I cannot focus

my faith

on

you.

I lurch

left                     and                     right

between

“Hosanna!”                         and                     “Crucify him!”

or

stand                           at a                     distance,

like a

casual acquaintance:

watching,                       silent,                    uninvolved,

saying

“I don’t know the man.”

Betraying                        the best                     that I know.

Help me, Lord,

to see you

for what you are:

A

Savior

who does not rescue me,

but instead

keeps me whole,

and

   helps me                    what I must

face                    face

A

Christ

who empowers me,

not by giving me

power and control,

but

by showing me                          and                         what I could be,

who I am,                                                   if I would follow your call.

Show me Lord,

who I really am:

At the same time

much less                             and                             much more

 than I think                                                      than I can imagine.

A person                                                                       A person

 in need of redemption.                                         worth dying for.

A person loved

by

God.

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The Man with the Hammer: A Reflection for Holy Week

hammer-and-nail

by Wendy Dackson

[Jesus’] enemies were not the notorious sinners whom society casts out…it was not the gross sins such as shock respectable people which sent Jesus to the Cross: it was the respectable sins which are in the hearts of all of us.

(William Temple, ‘Palm Sunday to Easter’, pp. 15-16)

I think we all benefit from at least one blood-curdling liturgical moment in our lives. We are particularly blessed if that moment falls during one of the major liturgies of Holy Week.  It is even better if it is something that could not be scripted, planned, or rehearsed.  Finally, it may have the most profound impact if it is a moment that strikes the individual, but goes unremarked by others.

My moment was on Maundy Thursday of 1996, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in River Hills, an upmarket  north suburb of Milwaukee.  We had completed our elegantly austere agape meal, observed our orderly liturgy of redundant foot-washing (of course, nobody arrives at these things un-pedicured), and duly observed the Holy Eucharist.  At this point, clergy and lay assistants, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Altar Guild, began to strip the altar bare for the prayer vigil that would occur between Thursday evening and the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy.  During this, the congregation recited the 22nd Psalm, as bit by bit, the sanctuary became darker and more sinister.

Notably absent from the congregation was the critical mass of adolescent members of St. Christopher’s.  They had a different job—to assemble the wooden cross that would be a prominent feature of the following day’s dramatization of the crucifixion. It was something that needed to be done, and giving the task to the young people was seen as a way of involving them in the work of the church. As we read aloud the psalmist’s words of agony and despair, I heard hammers striking wood and metal as the youth of the parish undertook their work.

I also heard laughter. Continue reading

Alone or Together: A Question for Holy Week

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by Ken Howard

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke to the class of 1993 back in my seminary days, he shared with us an old African proverb which has stuck with me through everything the last two decade threw before me:

If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.

Pretty simple. Pretty deep, too.  We live in a world that tells us that fast we go the better off we will be. And if that isn’t enough to motivate us, the world also reminds us that it will judge us on how much we can get done in how little time. The promise of judgment is true. The promise of better is a lie.

The faster we go, the more alone we become. In our haste and our multitasking, we become captives of all that is urgent and render ourselves deaf and blind to the few things that are truly important, and we isolate ourselves not just from each other but from God.  We come to the end of our days tired, lonely, and full of regrets, because while we may have made ourselves go fast, we have kept ourselves from getting anywhere that matters with anyone who cares.

Holy Week is not a race. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. It’s not at test of speed or endurance. Easter is NOT the finish line, but the beginning of a journey of a lifetime, a journey that can only be accomplished in the company of Christ and of the community of people who form the body of Christ. It is not about re-enacting the suffering and death of Jesus but walking with Jesus through his last week among us as a simple rabbi in order to prepare ourselves to journey with him into his resurrection, and ultimately to our own.

You are not the only lonely person out there in your world. Not the only person who has been seduced by the secondhand of the stopwatch. There are a lot of others out there that need to walk with Christ and experience Christ’s patient, deep, and transforming love just as much as you do.

We can put up all the signs, all the banners, all the advertisements in the world. And we should. They are necessary, just insufficient. But in the end, ads can’t truly invite people into community. Only people can do that. It doesn’t matter how you invite them – a phone call or an over-the-fence conversation, a simple note or a forwarded Facebook invite – but it matters that you do.

People won’t follow an advertisement to church, but they will follow you, if you ask them to.

Mission Accomplished?

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Palm Sunday A

Palm Sunday MemeWe always do this thing in Episcopal churches (lots of others do too) when on Palm Sunday we gather outside of the church building before the service. Someone deals palms and miniature crosses to everybody, and we wave them all around as we sing something joyful and triumphant like “All glory, laud, and honor,” marching into the church as if we’ve had a major victory.

Following our magnificent entrance into the church, our party is quickly squashed by dramatic lectors who act as “Debbie Downers,” reading the Passion (this year from Matthew).

This always confused me as a child; why would we celebrate just before hearing about Jesus being betrayed by his friends, unfairly tried, and wrongfully murdered? Seems like a pretty obvious case of Bait & Switch—and an overly dramatic one at that. But then again, this is sort of the flow of events of the Palm Sunday story, isn’t it?

Jesus does his best Shrek impression and requests a “donkey,” the disciples find him one, and a humongous crowd covers the road with tree branches as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. They sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Everything seems groovy; Jesus is here, presumably to use his political momentum to take some control of the religious scene in Jerusalem. His disciples—all of his followers—are ready to stand with Jesus as he takes his rightful throne…

…which means that the week only got worse for everyone involved.

Jesus didn’t take control of Jerusalem, he didn’t climb to a throne, and he didn’t succumb to the temptations of the devil, who this time met Jesus in his friends and followers’ hopes that he would exploit his political opportunity. The disciples hoped that their mission had been accomplished, but it had hardly begun.

Naturally, the disciples become upset as time days go by and Jesus keeps talking about how he must be crucified. He continues teaching, but his disciples want action.

Stringfellow Palm Sunday Quote“Poor Judas,” William Stringfellow wrote in Free in Obedience, “…portrayed as he usually is as some monstrous traitor, a greedy, hapless, sullen, and despicable man. I suggest it is more faithful to the New Testament to see Judas as a man who had dedicated his life to a great cause and who on the night of the betrayal was desperately and pathetically disillusioned with the One who was his leader. Perhaps Judas felt that he had been betrayed by Christ. And why expect Peter to have the faith not to deny Christ? Only fools have courage for lost causes.”

Naturally, the rulers of Israel and Rome saw Jesus’ potential to grab “their” power and squashed it soon after his seemingly triumphant entry into Jerusalem, yet for his followers, Palm Sunday “is a day of profound humiliation,” to quote Stringfellow again.

The question for you the reader, me the writer, and us the Christians (I’m guessing, because why else are you reading this?) is this: what do we do with the reality of this Palm Sunday closely followed by Good Friday situation? How do we live in the world with the knowledge that maybe Jesus wasn’t about getting “his people” and himself into positions of worldly power or authority? What is our role as witnesses to a world seemingly ruled by the powers of death but in reality ruled by Christ (who conquered death, of course)?

Stringfellow, again, says that our role is sacramental, not moralistic. This means that we live fully involved in the world but with an understanding of how to use what is at our disposal. The only real thing any of us have for certain are our lives—as long as we live, we can offer our lives to whomever and whatever we choose. We also may have money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or any other kind of thing at our disposal. All of these things can be used to worship anything and everything other than God, but they also can be used sacramentally—as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

The challenge for us then is not to figure out the right combination of word and practice in order to follow Christ; our challenge is to push ourselves and each other to do everything for the sake of God and God’s love for us made known through Christ.

That is our mission, if we choose to accept it.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Was Ghandi a Christian?… It depends…

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By Ken Howard

Was Ghandi a Christian?… It depends…

If the definition of Christian is “One who becomes an official member of the ‘religion’ of Christianity,” the answer is most certainly “No” (though from his diaries we learn that he almost did, but turned away from Christianity as a religion after being turned away from a segregated church).

If the definition of Christian is “One who loves Christ, follows Christ, and strives to be a Christ-ian (lit. ‘little Christ’),” we may not know for sure whether the answer is “Yes,” but there is room to doubt that the answer is “No.”

As quoted in the attached Christianity Today article by Dibin Samuel, Gandhi’s good friend, theologian and evangelist E. Stanley Jones once asked him: “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?”

Gandhi responded, “First, I would suggest that all Christians, missionaries begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice it without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non–Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Decent principles of discipleship, I think.)

He was also once quoted as saying, “I love your Christ, it is your Christians I do not like because they are so unlike your Christ… If more of your Christian’s were like your Christ, all India would be Christian.”

Indeed, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, as he explains to his disciples the Parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)

Something to think about…

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Dry Bones

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Lent 5A: Ezekiel 37:1-14

7062227167_a1261387d3We step closer and closer toward Holy Week, and this week we read all about death and the hope of resurrection—first in Ezekiel’s trek into the valley full of dry bones, second into Bethany where Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back from the dead.

Ezekiel, or “Zeke,” is a prophet, of course, and God teleports him into a valley full of bones—maybe a battlefield. The bones are all dried up; there is no sign of life. God asks Zeke if he thinks that the bones can live again. Zeke says, “God knows.” With a nod of acknowledgement, God tells Zeke to prophesy to the bones. Now prophets often speak to people who don’t listen, but this is ridiculous!

Zeke tells the bones that they will have breath, flesh, muscle, etc. and they will live again and will know that God is God. And it happens just like that, except that they don’t breathe; the reanimated bodies just sort of lied there like department store manikins.

At God’s instruction, Zeke tells the Spirit now to come from every direction and make the manikins breathe. They do, but now they say, “We’re all dried up, we’ve no hope left, and we’re cut off from life.” So God tells Zeke to tell them that God will open up their graves and bring them back into Israel—they’ll have to know God’s reality then! Now God will put the spirit within them and they will really live.

Who is the main character in this imaginative story, God or Zeke?

If the main character is God, we might glean some information about our creator—that God wants God’s children to live, that God can do amazing things and is ultimately more powerful than death, and that God influences people to bring new life into our world (whatever “new life” really means).

If the main character is Zeke, we might focus our energy on what it is that we are to do in order to bring new life into the world. Are we to also prophesy to those who miss those who have died, who seem dead, or who actually are dead? Will we know when God tells us to do something, or is that direct/prophet connection to God limited to a select few like Zeke?

Or maybe the main character in this isn’t God or Zeke at all! Maybe the main character is the ruach (“breath,” “wind,” or “spirit”) of God. The ruach mentioned here is the same ruach God breathed into the first human in the garden, the same one that moves in the Lazarus story in John, the same one breathed into Jesus crucified to lift him to resurrection life, and the very same one that comes to us in baptism. This ruach is like Christopher Walken—it seems to be in everything!

Warning: Imagining Christopher Walken as the Holy Spirit may cause waking nightmares and could seriously damage you, spiritually.

If ruach is the main character of this story, what might we learn from its role?

Even as the bodies are reanimated, they lack hope and feel disconnected. Their home was destroyed, and they were murdered. Now outside of their land—a familiar place of communion with God and one another—they are fearful that God has abandoned them altogether. Yet God is very present with them—so present that God speaks directly to one who walks among them in the valley; a mouthpiece of the divine. But God is also present in ruach, and all they need to do is to breathe in God’s presence.

Thousands of years later we have piled up a lot of conceptions of the Holy Spirit—overused by some and underused by just as many. Focusing only on the sort of metaphorical image of God’s presence being as accessible to us as air is to breathe, consider how fear prevents us from living just as much as death does.

In life, that is; and this life is what we’re talking about here…right? Fear has perfected the art of preventing us from living, to the point that we can find ourselves somewhat paralyzed by fear—of the unknown future, of a broken relationship, of a major decision.

Fear paralyzes, but God promises and provides abundant life. The promise of that life is extended to the whole world through Jesus the Christ who gave his life in a manner that emphasized how nothing worldly can make God or God’s goodness any less real—not in the heights of the mountains, the depths of the valleys, nor in death or life—nothing separates us from the love of God.

John Donne, who we remember this week on our calendar of saints, wrote, “And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,/Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.”

The reality and brutality of Jesus’ sacrifice at death nourishes our dry souls in a way similar to when God revitalized the dry bones in Ezekiel’s midst. Can the dry bones of our churches, our governments, our society, our public discourse, our economies, our relationships, and our souls find renewed life? Can we find solidarity with those in despair, and can we be messengers of God’s goodness and advocates for those who could use some advocacy?

God only knows.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo: James Poulter, 2012, Flickr