Monthly Archives: February 2011

Inspiration from Wendell Berry

Spiritual LadderI made reference to the following poem from Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 this morning in my sermon.  I thought I’d share it with you:

He thought to keep himself from Hell
by knowing and by loving well.
His work and vision, his desire
Would keep him climbing up the stair.

At limit now of flesh and bone,
He cannot climb for holding on.
“I fear the drop, I feel the blaze–
Lord, grant thy mercy and thy grace.” (P. 108)

lillies_fujimura

The Arts and Cultural Estuaries

[Note: This was supposed to go up last night, but technical difficulties prevented it.  I’ll post my response to today’s lectures later this evening.]

This week I’m attending the C3 Conference hosted by St. George’s Church, Nashville.  The line up of speakers is impressive, and the opening plenary speaker, Makoto Fujimura, was very thought provoking as he spoke about Artists, culture and the Church.  In particular he spoke about the need for Christians to support the arts and help to create “Cultural Estuaries” where the broader culture and the Church can encounter one another in the midst of art.  In so doing, he argues, we will be creating both mediating spaces and a mediating language that can allow the Church and Secular society to speak to one another in understandable ways.

I thought his presentation was inspiring and right on.  The exile of artists and art from the Church, and the utilitarianism with which it has been approached is lamentable.

There’s more in store for tomorrow, but here are a few things to chew on until then:

Here’s some of Fujimura’s beautiful work:

 

You can learn more about the C3 Conference and the St. George’s Institute Of Church and Cultural Life by visiting this site.  I’m excited and thankful that a congregation in our Diocese is hosting such a conference… so check it out.

I’ll be writing up the C3 Conference for The Living Church as well, so keep your eyes open.

Motivation Matters…

Christ instructs the disciples

When I was in college I took history of Judaism and Hebrew Bible courses.  These were two of my favorite classes, both of them taught by a Jewish Rabbi.  As I was reading the lessons for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, one of his class sessions came back to me.  We were discussing the various laws that mark out the everyday activities of a Jewish person.  Specifically we were talking about some of the underlying reasons for Kosher dietary laws.  For example, it is well known that a person who keeps Kosher will not eat meat and dairy products at the same time, or eat one that has been prepared in proximity to the other, so that there is any possibility of touching or intermingling.  The origins of this practice are less well known.  It comes from the ritual commandments in the Book of Exodus, one of which says:  “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26).  There is a sense of humanity in refusing to cook the young of a species in the milk of its mother.  While one might be logically able to cook a kid (young goat) in the milk of some other goat or even some other mammal, the easiest way to ensure compliance is to simply not eat meat and dairy products together.  This practice is known as building a fence around the law, i.e. the formulation of rules that act as behavioral guides that prevent the breaking–even inadvertent–of greater commandments.

It is interesting that Jesus does something similar in today’s Gospel.  Over the past several weeks we have been reflecting on portions of Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  We began with the portion that most people remember best, the beatitudes (where we heard Jesus pronounce God’s blessing on folks that would’ve been surprising to his listeners) and we continued with his teaching that those who follow him are to be Salt & Light to the world.  The sermon on the mount continues across several chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, and we haven’t reached the end yet.

In today’s lesson, Jesus gets specific with his disciples about what it means to be salt–that is, to live a righteous life.  He addresses anger, lust, adultery, divorce and oath taking.  He instructs his disciples in a series of statements or theses followed by antitheses, using the formula “You have heard that it was said…” followed by his interpretation/teaching which is introduced with “But I say to you…”

Some scholars talk about this type of teaching in terms of intensification and abrogation. In other words there are times when Jesus’ teaching is an intensification of the law found in the Old Testament, while in other instances he seems to abrogate them, or indicate that they are no longer in force.  This interpretive tool, while helpful, does not seem to apply in the case of Matthew’s Gospel.  For Matthew, the category to consider is not intensification, but fulfillment.  Jesus says plainly that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  This teaching is Jesus’ teaching on how to fulfill the Law.  The form that it takes, seems very similar in form to the “fence building” practiced by later Rabbis (and probably other Pharisees of the day).

Jesus begins by addressing the subject of murder,

Thesis: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder'; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'”

Antithesis: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Anger, in Jesus’ teaching, is the root of murder.  Resisting the one prevents the other, and therefore avoids judgement.  The anger that is referred to here is not the emotion that we get when someone wrongs us or wounds us–that is a healthy emotion that tells us something is wrong.  Jesus himself demonstrated his anger at the money lenders in the Temple, when he not only ran them out, he ran them out with a whip of chords that he took the time to make.  Clearly there is a place for a righteous anger.  The difficulty is that none of us is Jesus.  We are not capable of hanging onto anger and having it remain righteous.  We have to let go of our anger.  The anger that Jesus warns us against is harbored anger, anger that boils because the flames have been fanned–anger that turns to hatred and motivates sinful actions–even the most extreme, such as murder.

Likewise, for Jesus, lust is the root of adultery.

Thesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

Antithesis: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Lust differs from simple attraction in the same way that harbored anger or hate differs from healthy anger.  Finding someone attractive is not sinful.  Lingering thoughts and fantasies are, because it is out of these that harmful and sinful actions develop.  Avoiding the former prevents the latter.

In his teaching, Jesus is “sharpening the Torah,” clarifying what it means to keep the spirit of the law, as well as the letter.  He is moving his disciples–moving us–from the realm of the external to the internal.  A little further on in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus reminds his followers that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out, saying “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:18).

In a sense, these teachings are difficult for us today, not because they are hard to understand, but because they seem hard to keep, especially, if I had to hazard a guess, in terms of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, where he draws a more strict interpretation.  It only helps us a little to know that his interpretation was actually helpful to women of the day, who otherwise (in the majority opinion) be divorced at will by their husbands without recourse and without hope of support.  It only helps a little because, for us, in our predominantly egalitarian day and age, the standard of marital indissolubility is difficult.  But it would be wrong to interpret this in a legalistic way.  Marriage is meant to be lifelong, and Jesus’ teachings on marriage are clearly more strict than others, but grace is present.

The final issue Jesus addresses in the Gospel reading, is that of oath taking.  In this, Jesus does something that he does in other ways during his ministry: he hearkens back to some of the core commandments of Israel: the decalogue (Ten Commandments) and sets out oath taking as violating the 3rd (You shall not invoke with malice, the Name of the Lord Your God) and 9th (You shall not be a false witness) commandments.  Jesus emphasizes the foolishness of swearing oaths by highlighting the powerlessness of human beings.  We cannot possibly control God, we can’t even control the color of our hair (the ancient world knew of hair dye; there is an irony here, because even when someone’s hair is dyed, their original hair color remains–they haven’t actually changed anything, hence the point).

In each of these examples, Jesus demonstrates how important intention, and the disposition of one’s heart is.  As the early Church father Origen put it:

“To give assent to sin is already a completed evil, even if someone does not actually commit the deed.  And by this saying our Savior, hurling away from the cause of sins, endeavors to cut sin off completely.  For when this intention is not present in our souls, neither shall the action accompany it.” (Origen, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume Ia, p. 104)

This is goes hand in hand with Augustine’s view of lying, for instance, which was that a person must know that they are telling a falsehood in order for them to lie.  If they believe they are telling the truth, even if the information is false, they are not guilty of lying.  Alternatively, if someone told the truth, but believed it to be false, they would be guilty of lying: culpability follows intent.  The challenge for us is work daily to purify our thoughts and intentions so that we do not present ourselves or others with an occasion for sin, but instead increase the opportunities for righteous living and service to others.

On Salt & Light

The Gospel lesson for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany provides a glimpse of the Sermon on the Mount.  The previous week we heard the Beatitudes where Jesus proclaims God’s blessing upon many sorts and conditions of people that would have been surprising at the time.  He follows this with his instruction to his disciples, declaring:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:13-14).

With this, Jesus teaches them about the role they are to play in God’s grand story of salvation.

You are salt.  You are light.

You are salt, and are called to do among the peoples of the earth what literal salt does to food.   To act as a preservative by demonstrating Righteous living, by demonstrating in concrete ways that the commands of God to care for one another, for yourself, for creation, lead to life, while rejecting the commands of God lead to confusion and death and destruction.

Salt is also used for purification–even today salt is a primary ingredient in home remedies and some medicines–it fights decay, disease–it purifies.  So intertwined was the connection between salt and purity in the ancient world, up through the middle ages, that people extrapolated spiritual qualities from the physical and salt came to be used in Baptism, as part of a rite of exorcism that accompanied the sacrament.

Salt, of course, makes things tasty.  As one early commenter noted, “without salt neither bread nor fish is edible” (Cyril of Alexandria).  In calling his followers to be salt, Christ calls us to make the peoples of the Earth pleasing to God by keeping his commandments by praising him and offering him a broken and contrite heart for the sins of the world–not only individual sins–but the sins of the world.  And not out of judgmentalism, but out of grief for the ramifications of sin: the separation, the anger and alienation that result from it, keeping people separated from one another, and from God.

Think of the family that will not speak because of some long ago infraction, some sin that wounded, and a pride that buries any hope of forgiveness.

In being salt, those who follow Christ are called to live righteously and in accordance with the great commandment, to Love God and love neighbor.

As one Church Father said [Jesus] “calls salt the frame of mind that is filled with the apostolic word, which is full of understanding. When it has been sown in our souls, it allows the word of wisdom to dwell in us” (Cyril of Alexandria).

To be the salt of the earth, is to preserve, to purify and to make pleasing.  When we meditate on the word of God, the apostolic teaching acts as salt, enabling us to be salt to others.

Sometimes people consider the warning that Jesus gives, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot,” to be a declaration of God’s punishment.  However, it is much more likely that this too is a statement instead of God’s concern.  It is not God who tramples the salt that has lost its savor, but the world.  As Hillary of Poitiers put it:

Jesus calls the faithful the “salt of the earth.”  He warns them to persist in the strength of the power handed over to them.  Otherwise, losing their own taste, they are unable to make anything else tasty.  Deprived of salt’s taste, they are unable to make what is rotten edible.  He warns them lest, cast forth from the church storerooms, they be trampled under foot by the feet of passerby–the very feet of those they should have served with salt. (“On Matthew 4.10″, ACCS, volume Ia, pg. 92)

You are light, Jesus says.  Those who follow him are to be a beacon, to others.  To draw them toward a better way through example.

Chrysostom says “You are the light of the world–not of a single nation nor of twenty cities but of the entire inhabited earth. You are like light for the mind, far better than any particular sunbeam. Similarly, you are spiritual salt.  First you are salt.   Then you are light.

Chrysostom shows that the order is important.  When Jesus calls his followers to be salt, then light, we should understand that the one is dependent upon the other.  The Church will not be a light to draw others so long as it is not first salt–so long as we are not striving to lead righteous lives.

In the practical teachings that follow on anger, adultery, oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, alms, prayer and fasting, Jesus shares with the disciples what it means to be salt, what it means to seek to live a righteous life with each teaching arising from the imperative to love God and love one another.  An individual follower may not–will not–exemplify these virtues perfectly, and yet Jesus sets them before his followers as the means whereby they will be “the salt of the earth.” The means whereby their lives will become beacons.

And it is true, isn’t it, that even a poorly burning lamp is visible in the darkness? That even a flickering flame stands out when what surrounds it are shadows and death?

This is the metaphor that Christ chose to illustrate the difference between seeking and following God and seeking and following–what?

Idols…

idols of self,

idols of power,

of things,

of hate,

of anger.

Anything can be an idol.  The purpose of the called-out people of God, of Israel and of the Church, the Gentiles grafted into Israel, is to call the people of the earth away from idolatry.   To expose empty gods made of wood, gods that are mute, gods that pass away, vs. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–the living God of the living who calls his children out of darkness and into light.

And so, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

The fulfillment of the Law lies in the identity of the people of God as a Kingdom of Priests–a people intended first as an example, and then as a magnet.

And so, as St. Chrysostom says:

First you are salt.  Then you are light.

First we are salt–we strive to live righteously, which means first and foremost living out of love and respect, living out the reconciliation between ourselves and God and ourselves and one another brought about by Christ.

Then we are light–when we do this, we become examples to others. Not because of anything we do, but because we reflect the person of Christ to others, and in so doing draw them in.

This can happen in so many ways.

For example, some of you may have heard that an important vote was held in recent weeks in the Southern Sudan.  It got eclipsed in the news by events in Tunisia and Egypt, but this vote was especially momentous.  Sudan has been wracked by two civil wars, one in the 70’s and one in the 80’s & 90’s which resulted in over 2 million deaths and 4 million people being displaced.

During this period however, the churches in the area–primarily Roman Catholic and Anglican–have exploded with growth.  The Christians of the Sudan have not had many resources to build churches or schools, so in many cases they have gathered in public areas, under trees etc… to hold their worship, Baptism and marriage services.  In this way, they have been visible in their communities.  Additionally, they have cared for their neighbors to the extent that, as another priest reports, he heard a story from one of the Priests of the Diocese of Renk in Southern Sudan:

“During the civil war, this pastor was talking to a man who was not a member of the church. When the man learned that the pastor belonged to the Episcopal Church, he said, “I know your church. Your church is like lightning on the horizon in a time of drought signaling the promise of rain” (click here read the original blog post and see the accompanying video).

What great compliment could be paid to any organization by people who are primarily cattle herders and agrarian?  You are like lightning on the horizon.  You are light.

Another example of Christians being salt and light, one I’ve used before, is that of the the French town Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.  Led by their pastor, Andre Trocme, the people of this village hid Jews from around France from the Nazi’s during Would War II.  They did this at great risk to their own safety, but upon reflection, many involved could think of no other way they could’ve acted.  They were salt and light. (check out this book for more information: Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There)

Finally, any of us can be salt and light to others, in small and ordinary ways in the midst of our lives.  The friend that needs help with a difficult problem, the family member struggling with addiction, the neighbor or stranger that needs a hand with a home or car repair, the person that needs to know there are people in the world that care.

We are called to be Salt and light to others.  As the body of Christ we can strive toward the ideals put before us, trusting in the grace of God, and the fact that, while we may not lead perfect lives individually, as a body we are moving closer and closer to what God has in store for us.  In this way, we can be salt, and then we can be light.  Amen.

Adolescent Puritanism

In the past I have have observed that one of the best ways to make sense of American attitudes toward sexuality and the body is to think of Americans as adolescent puritans.  In saying this I don’t intend to insult either adolescents or puritans, it’s just a good short hand for a peculiar mix of attitudes, the rebelliousness of adolescence, and the prudishness of puritans (actually, the Puritans were far less prudish than contemporary Americans in many ways).  For example, I’ve yet to find anyone who would argue the fact that our media is awash with sexual imagery, that innuendo and and scant dress are the currency of advertising–anyone who watches the Super Bowl can attest to it.  Yet at the same time, Americans can be extremely prudish about natural bodily functions.  The language used in popular culture about sexuality and the body–being naughty, bad etc…–indicates that we see sexuality as a guilty pleasure.  But while we desire the equivalent of sexual candy, we reject a healthy appreciation of the body as too risque for everyday life.  We want to have our candy as candy rather than face the truth that we need to grow up and recognize why we were created as sexual beings, and what it means that sex, reproduction and child-rearing are of a piece–a tapestry of life if you will–and that compartmentalizing them leads to tremendous dysfunction.

Some of this dysfunction gets written into our laws, such as a law here in Tennessee that makes it a statutory offense for mothers to breast-feed children over 12 months of age.  I should be clear about the lack of clarity in the statute, in this case the TN statute concerning public indecency.  § 39-13-511 of the Tennessee Code, concerning Public indecency says the following in ¶ 2, section A, defining nudity:

“Nudity” or “state of nudity” means the showing of the bare human male or female genitals or pubic area with less than a fully opaque covering, the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of the areola, or the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state. “Nudity” or “state of nudity” does not include a mother in the act of nursing the mother’s baby[…]

This seems pretty clear and straightforward, however, there is this additional comment about breastfeeding:

(c) The provisions of this section do not apply to a mother who is breastfeeding her child who is twelve (12) months of age or younger in any location, public or private.

So the question becomes: why the specificity?  Was this added to the code in order to restrict the age that a woman could breastfeed without fear of harrasment, or was it actually a forward-looking liberalization when it was passed in 2006?  Either way, the age seems immaterial.  If someone doesn’t like the age at which a mother is breasfeeding her child, they need to–excuse the phrase–suck it up, and move on.  Different strokes for different folks as my dad says.  The act of breastfeeding a child is not indecent, whether the sensibility is shared or not.  Most women have a sense of propriety and don’t desire to draw attention to themselves or their children in such circumstances.

In this case, the problem is in the eye of the beholder.  As I once told a friend who complained about the way some people were dressing, at a certain point, you have to take responsibility for your own thoughts and your own sins.  You can’t blame others for the way they dress or comport themselves–you have to deal with it yourself.  I feel the same way about people who would have an issue with breastfeeding–if you have a problem with it, well then, you probably do have a problem and should deal with it.

In the immediate future, there is a possibility that this restriction could be removed.  Senator Faulk (Republican from Kingsport) has introduced a bill that would remove this age limitation.  The bill reads:

Children – As introduced, deletes the age limitation in statute permitting mothers to publicly breastfeed only their children who are age 12 months or younger. – Amends TCA Section 39-13-511 and Title 68, Chapter 58.

The only problem is that the bill lacks a sponsor in the House of Representatives, without which, it will die for another year.  Consider writing your representatives to see if they will take this on.  From my perspective the fact that government would presume to insert itself in such a sensitive area goes beyond the bounds of the public good and after all, Jesus was breastfed–and probably past a year old.

Don’t believe me–take a look :-):