Monthly Archives: October 2013

Strangers in a strange land

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare..

Compared to last week’s readings, I really lucked out this week, with some truly lovely, non-troubling readings.

I want to start, however, with looking back to Psalm 137 from last week. They that carried us away to captivity, required of us a song. (Some of you may be hearing Bob Marley in the background.) How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

This one line is worth attending to week after week. In fact, I believe that most of the Old Testament is the answer to this question: how shall we sing God’s song in a strange land?

The context for last week’s psalm is the same context as the portion of Jeremiah we heard this morning.

It is hard for most of us to imagine the experience of exile, being forced by foreign invasion to leave all that we consider home. But imagine a conversation between a handful of these exiles and their God. They have a whole lot of questions:

“Hey, God, how do we sing to you, and how do we sing about you in this strange land? The Babylonians….they don’t exactly have the same values you taught us. How do we keep being your faithful people when we have been taken away from the land you gave us? The land that was to define us?

Here is the answer they get:

Build houses and live in them. Have a stake in the community, strange or not. Plant gardens. Put down roots. Take wives, and have sons and daughters. This is a multi-generational proposition. Multiply there in that strange land, and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf. In its welfare, you will find your welfare.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.

This tells us a couple of things. First, God is with us, wherever we are. Second, we are not called to be separated from those who differ from us.

As long as there have been faith communities, there have been different views of what it means to be a person of faith in relation to a wider culture that does not share that faith. The great twentieth-century protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a wonderful book in 1951 called Christ and Culture. In it he articulated half a dozen ways that Christians practice faith in relation to the world around them. I’ll name just a few.

  • What Niebuhr called “Christ against culture” represents separatist, inward-looking Christian communities who have no use for the world and assume the world has no use for them.
  • Christ of Culture represents Christians who are so much in the world, it is hard to tell what makes them Christian. The Gospel of Prosperity might be a guiding principle for this group.
  • Christ above culture is the view that religion is all about getting out of here and getting to heaven.

If we were to put a Christian spin on Jeremiah’s words to the exiles we might say that the Hebrews in Babylon were called to be what Niebuhr called Transformers of Culture, followers of God who find—and sing about—God’s presence in the present world where they live.

We, no less than the exiles in ancient Babylon, are called to be transformers of culture through nurturing the world around us and engaging the world as people of faith. We are called to find, enter, and proclaim the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

tenth leperHow do we do this? Let us leave the exiles where they are, planting gardens and having sons and daughters in Babylon, and look instead at the ten lepers whom Jesus heals in today’s gospel. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are foreigners, too. Samaritans, cultural and religious exiles in the circles where Jesus traveled. Yet he sang God’s song to them, a song of healing and wholeness. In their encounter with Jesus, the whole world became new.

The star of this morning’s gospel is the tenth leper. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

Martin Luther, when asked to describe the true nature of worship, is said to have answered that worship is the tenth leper going back to Jesus to thank him. If we agree with Luther (which I do, a lot of the time), worship is how we keep in touch with transformation and healing. It is the well from which we drink deeply again and again, and where we give thanks. There is a reason why the long prayer we pray each week over the bread and wine is called The Great Thanksgiving.

What it means to be church, as followers of Jesus, is to build and to plant, and to give thanks. Weekly worship of the formal variety is not the only way we come to the well and give thanks—at least I hope it isn’t—but it is a way. When we come to this table to receive that great symbol of healing and transformation contained in a little piece of bread and a sip of wine, imagine ourselves as the tenth leper, saying: oh, yeah, this is now who I am. This is what I do as part of who I am in this new world. And as we go out into this week, into this world where we are planted, let’s ask ourselves: how do we become its transformation?

Of “Nonessential” Federal Employees & Worthless Slaves

Preached with St. David’s for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.

“So you also, when you have done all you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves, we have only done what we ought to have done!'” -Luke 17:10, NRSV

So here’s what I think this Gospel is about: I think its about thankless work, about the kind of work that is so seamlessly integrated into the rest of our lives that we wouldn’t even think to be thanked for it, the way you shrug off someone’s thanks for something kind you’ve done that you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to. I think its about making God’s work such a similarly seamless part of our daily life. But all of this comes to us today in troubling language. I’ve been troubled this week as I’ve sat with it, and I hope you’ll take some time to be troubled beside me for a bit.

Another thing I’ve been troubled by this week is a friend who’s been deemed non-essential by the United States government. He just started working for the research wing of the National Cancer Institute this Summer, and many such federal public health initiatives are included in the initial wave of furloughs. He and his family should be fine, they have enough money in savings to make it through a certain amount of this, but they aren’t so sure about some of the other staff at the Institute, the clerks, the secretaries, the janitors, and others who may live paycheck-to-paycheck. In a capitalist economy, non-essentialism packs a strong punch. It is not only an assault on the personal economy of an individual who has cultivated for himself a skill set according to the monetary values of the broader culture, it can also be an assault on human dignity and personal worth.

So my ears perk when I hear Jesus challenge his apostles to think of themselves as worthless slaves. “Worthless” is a strong trigger for me, I’ve spent the majority of my adult re-entry into Christian practice focused precisely on the ways God makes us worthy to stand before him. It helps me to know that “worthless” here is translated as “unprofitable” elsewhere, that the Greek word ἀχρεῖος literally means “not necessary”. “Not necessary” at least has a remotely spiritual ring to it, some of the best things in God’s creation are not necessary, but it’s still not a word I’m going to use to describe any of the dozens of people who help me bag my groceries and pump my gas and make my coffee every day. Or the people who teach my neighbor’s children or treat folks who can’t afford it, or any of the other classic non-profit public workers who offer their service seamlessly and without thanks to the larger body of our community. What is it about these people, people who simply “do what they ought to have done” that Jesus calls our attention to? What would Jesus be asking of us, if he asked us to identify with those public servants deemed “not necessary” by our federal government?

Identifying with the nonessential goes against the very grain of what our culture instills in us. We spend lifetimes shoring up our own indispensable essentiality, our own personal marketability, crafting resumes to convince the world of our monetary worth. We are a nation, in fact, of individuals seeking our own essentiality. In the process we produce non-essential casualties. These casualties began long, long before the furloughs; the government shutdown is merely a mirror of the priorities we’ve already set for ourselves as a nation. It shouldn’t be surprising when our public health initiatives are among the first to go when we live in a nation where one in seven citizens lacks adequate and affordable access to basic health care. It shouldn’t be surprising that Head Start programs are also among the first to lose funding when we live in a nation where one in five families with young children had trouble keeping those children fed last year. We shouldn’t be surprised at what remains essential, either: military strength, self-defense, being armed to the teeth while our own children starve. Our national values are magnifications of our personal ones, and they depict a person who values his own safety more than the welfare of his neighbor, who must hoard everything he has for fear of losing, and who has become completely isolated by fear.

To be non-essential then is to be in good Gospel company, to be with those who need healing and those who need to be fed. It is to be vulnerable, to acknowledge that we cannot help ourselves alone, to at times to be unprotected and feel the sting of the world’s ingratitude and malice. These are the folks God favors, the lowly ones, the liabilities. They aren’t valuable by the values of the world, they seem to be a burden and yet God loves them for the same reason God loves anyone because God is God and to love freely and without reason is God’s glorious privilege.

Which I’m not about to pitch to my friend or any of the other one million federal employees out of work this month as any kind of consolation for the total disregard and indignity they have been shown. I only want to hold them up as an example, the way Jesus did with the so-called worthless slaves of the disciples, because they, too, have simply only done what they ought to have done. Most of these employees didn’t get into the work they do because they expected public accolades. Most of the Head Start teachers I’ve known didn’t get into teaching because they knew they’d be thanked every day for their work. Most of these public servants began their labor because they were compelled by the intrinsic, glorious worth they saw in a person or place not otherwise deemed worthy by society. A tract of unprotected public wilderness, a cancer survivor, a man with chronic pre-existing health concerns, a child who had not yet learned to read, each a liability to the capitalist economy, and each one an occasion for awe, and praise, and wonder, and love. Over generations of public service, through the labor of all who took time to care and fight for the non-essentials of this world, the budget and the character of our country evolved to include taking care of them as well. This is a part of Christ’s re-creation among and with us. To participate in it, to catch the glint of passion planted in us for someone or something seemingly worthless in this world, to labor in a way that seems to go against the grain of what’s supposed to be important, to love freely and without reason, this is our own glorious privilege to claim beside him.

Steer Your Surfing Towards the Word

Are you in an internet rut? I get stuck in one every time I open my browser. I mean well. I open it and check some news sites to see what’s happening in the world. I open up my email to see who needs what. Then I open up Facebook. I tell myself I’m just checking on my friends. This rarely actually happens, though, and instead I find myself scrolling through an endless list of cute kitten photos on buzzfeed or moderately interesting opinion piece about an issue I may tangentially care about on huffpost or the not-really-news pieces that seems to be fond of lately. All mediocre content with catchy or provocative titles meant to lure clicks into ad space. Unintentional browsing of the internet can easily turn it into a tabloid; or, the click of least resistance leads straight to kitten pics and commentary on Miley Cyrus. Sometimes I find something interesting. Much more often, I get to the end of a story and I think, “I can’t believe I just spent five minutes of my time reading that.”

Have you considered spending that five minutes with scripture instead? (Will you please imagine me asking that in a Mr. Rodgers sweater vest?) Perhaps you already have a daily practice for reading sacred stories that works for you (share it in the comments below so we can hear about it!) If you’re like me, daily practices can be hard to maintain. Sadly, one constant thing in my day-to-day life is my web browser. The good news is that even this can be easily turned into a tool for redirecting your attention towards something that matters more to you than kitten photos. (Don’t get mad, even baby Jesus likes kitten pics, but in moderation, people.)

photo (7)

Here’s what I’m committing myself to for the rest of the season, you can join me if you feel so inspired: place some or all of these links below in your bookmarks bar, and when you open your web browser during the day, open one of them before you go to Facebook (or whatever else your internet addiction is, pie-baking blogs, youtube make-up tutorials). In other words, read something with some real, hearty, thought-provoking heart-inflaming head-scratching content. Read the Bible online. Five minutes. It will make the Bible-reading kitten pictured here proud.

So where do you want to start?

You can drag any of these links straight up to your bookmark bar where it can stare you in the face every time you open the internet.

You could start with a simple with a link to the weekly lectionary such as:

This will give you a heads up for what we’ll hear in church on Sunday morning. It’s not cheating to read the scripture ahead of time. Walk around with it, let the stories simmer in your mind. Then you’ll be one-up on whoever’s preaching that week.

Soak up all the Sunday lectionary for the week? Try the daily office lectionary. Here’s one great place to look it up:

or you could give yourself a direct link to the calendar for the month, such as this: 

Clicking on any day of the calendar will take you to the readings for that day, daily office, daily Eucharist. Don’t get overwhelmed by choices, just click on a passage of scripture. Maybe something you know you haven’t read before. Maybe you just close your eyes and click, the modern-day equivalent of opening your bible to whatever page it lands on. Sometimes I read all the Old Testament lessons for the week at once, in order, consecutively, because I know I probably won’t come back to it tomorrow. (Now we’re getting really real here.)

Maybe, just maybe, you even want to read the Daily Office from the web. If so, try this: 

It’s all there, right on the web. Or perhaps a shorter devotion, such as this:

Whatever you choose, read some scripture. Read a little, read a lot. If you’re alone or unselfconscious read it out loud to yourself. Then, close your eyes. They’re tired of looking at the computer anyway. Close them, breathe deep, and invite God to be with you. Then, when you’re ready, move on with the rest of your day.