In March, Michael Cover wrote about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. I have not read the book, but I have watched the Masterpiece Mystery series based upon it, Grantchester.I enjoyed the series and appreciate a depiction of clergy dealing with personal issues that rise above buffoonery.
One issue the show brought into stark relief for me, is the tension that builds between Sidney’s desire to investigate and seek the truth — and to share that truth with his detective friend — and the expectation of pastoral discretion. How often can Sidney betray the confidences of his flock before he is no longer trusted by any of them?
The juxtaposition of Sidney’s compulsion to investigate, and his use of his pastoral role to gather information, highlights a contrast I’ve noted between one of my past jobs and my vocation as a priest.
Before I went to seminary I spent four years working as a private investigator in my dad’s investigative agency. But while I was officially employed for four years, I had many more years of exposure, if not experience, as I started going with my dad to work cases — largely worker’s compensation cases in the early years — when I was around seven years old.
This formed me in the experience of knowing things about people that others do not, and in keeping that knowledge largely to myself. (Of course, until I was ordained, there was no absolute requirement of secrecy).
Since I have been engaged in pastoral ministry, and my dealings with the people of God have revealed that the secrets that sometimes come to light are incredibly convoluted, I have been reflecting on the difference between the role of an investigator and the role of a priest.
Now that things are (hopefully) calming down in Ferguson, with the help of appropriately attired Highway patrol officers, I think it’s time to come up with a better term for the use of military grade equipment far beyond what is necessary by local police forces. “Militarization” implies that they have been given the sort of training one would need to use these tools responsibly. Given the *spirit* of the Posse Comitatus Act (which a number of friends assure me is dead, but anyway…) which technically applies only to federal troops, but really sought to avoid the deployment of military style forces against the American populace, it seems counter productive to have people in such gear attempting to police an area. This is a concern that cuts across political lines. But we need another name… Instead of “Militarization” how about “Evidence of government subsidies for weapons manufacturers via local police agencies” or something?
Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15
Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1
The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.
To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2
There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3
Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ [↩]
As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 [↩]
Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). [↩]
“Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:
“To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth–
“–Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending–a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
Studies have demonstrated that one of the ways our minds work is to save information or store an impression of places that we’ve been, particularly places that we spend a lot of time, such as rooms in our home, offices, perhaps our churches, and so forth. If it weren’t for this ability to store the memories of places we frequent, we would experience every entry into a space as though it were the first time.
This familiarity, while saving effort and preventing us from overtaxing our minds, also leads to the phenomenon of missing small changes in our environments. A book or magazine is moved, someone replaces a lamp, chairs are at different angles, or perhaps something more pronounced has occurred, like a room sporting a fresh coat of paint. Such changes may escape notice when we initially enter a place with which we are intimately familiar, and only enter our awareness when our attention is drawn to a particular detail.
There seems to be a similar phenomenon that occurs with stories with which we are familiar. We allow the details to fade out, because we remember the overarching narrative. We know what the point of the story is because we have heard it over and over again. The problem with this shorthand understanding of meaning, particularly when dealing with one of Christ’s parables, is that we can internalize incomplete or false understandings. When approaching a parable of Jesus, no matter how familiar, it is important that we listen to it with new ears, and seek to allow Jesus’ instruction to form us, as it formed his original listeners.
Although we can no longer assume everyone in our culture is familiarity with the parables, it is safe to assume that people who regularly attend church, especially those who attend church in liturgical traditions such as ours, are familiar with many of them. And of all the parables, one of the most well-known is that of the The Good Samaritan. And I would be willing to suggest that for many of us the point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that we are ourselves to be Good Samaritans; in other words we are to be good people, kind people, people who treat folks well and help those in need. And we’re not wrong.
This is indeed laudable, and is I would say part and parcel of forming a Christian character. But there is more to this parable than a calling to be kind. The call to kindness does not exhaust its meaning. Instead, it is a challenge to us from a few directions: a challenge not only to be merciful, but about those to whom we should extend mercy, and from whom we are willing, or should be willing, to receive it.
We tend to focus on the content of the parable itself–and rightly so–it is important, and it clearly strikes against some universal human tendencies. But while the content is important, we need to remember the context. As Walter Brueggemann writes “The question at the beginning is: eternal life. The answer at the end is: Mercy. […] The story functions to change the subject away from life with God to life with neighbor. […] Jesus’ story changes our life-question by plugging us into a world of violence. The subject is a street mugging, which seems far from eternal life. the great gospel questions are worked out midst the concreteness of brutality and nowhere else, brutality we work on each other, brutality we observe but in which we are, by our humanity, implicated” (Bruggemann, “A Zinger that Changes Everything, ” The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, 7).
It takes place in the context of violence. People will often make comments about Jesus and his teaching that reveal their evaluation of him as naive; that they believe he sees the world through rose colored glasses, that his teachings are nice, but not practical: “That Jesus, isn’t he nice. Love everyone… that’s a nice idea, too bad it won’t work in the real world.” But Jesus is not naive. He wasn’t whipped and nailed to the cross because he was ignorant of the human condition. This parable begins in violence, and it’s intended to show us how to live as disciples in the midst of a violent world.
The man is beaten and left in a ditch. Here comes the priest, and then the Levite–both of whom the listeners may have expected to help–only for them to see the man, and pass by on the other side, the implication being that they go out of their way to cross the road and avoid him. Their reaction highlights a failing we have all likely experienced, the tendency to allow our priorities to be turned on their head, for our closely held values to be eclipsed in the moment.
It can be hard… we talk about tyranny of the urgent, but there’s also tyranny of the trivial. Or at least, of the less important over what is of greater importance. Most things in life are fundamentally not emergencies, and yet we act as though they are, to the extent that sometimes we miss the actual emergency. Scholars debate whether the purity codes had anything to do with the fact that both the priest and levite avoid the man in the ditch, but regardless of the specifics, the parable implies that whatever they were doing was enough for them to avoid fulfilling the great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They saw… and they passed by on the other side, leaving the man to his fate.
In contrast, a third person passes by and sees the man, and responds in a completely different way. Jesus’ listeners, like us, would’ve been trained to listen for the third example, the “rule of three” being a common device. Perhaps they already had in mind who it might be who would keep the spirit of the law and offer aid to the man. A Pharisee perhaps. If a respected priest and a respected levite passed by, perhaps a Pharisee (and remember, they were well respected), someone who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, would give aid.
But the third person, the one who offers aid, isn’t a better follower of the Law. At least from a Jewish perspective, he’s not a follower of the law at all; he’s a despised Samaritan. The priest and the levite are said to have seen the man. But then they avoid him. They haven’t really seen him. They looked at him, but they did not see themselves in him. In contrast, the Samaritan truly sees the man, sees his plight, and is moved with compassion and empathy, which motivate him to give aid.
And this reality brings us to the second issue the parable highlights: We often don’t really like to consider who our neighbor is. It is about who we should offer aid to, and the fact that we are called to extend mercy,
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man […]” Jesus asks “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)
but it is about much more than that as well. When we ask who our neighbor is, we are not only challenged about extending mercy to all–a proposition that most Christians would at least claim to strive for–but also about who we are comfortable extending mercy to us. One commentator on this parable noted that it might be better to call it the Parable of the Man in the Ditch. Everything in the parable points to the fact that everyone involved, save the Samaritan himself, is Jewish. How might Jewish people of the day have felt about the idea of receiving mercy and charity from a Samaritan?
When we interpret this parable only as though we will always be the ones in a position of offering aid, we miss a good deal of the point. The parable is to help us recognize that the one who has mercy, and the one in need of mercy, are our neighbors–that is, everyone. But when Jesus says to the man presenting the question “Go and do likewise” he is saying to him “go, and be willing to learn, even from a Samaritan, how to be a better follower of God.” And beyond that: “Go, and be willing to receive mercy, even from one you would have called unclean.”
We have probably all asked ourselves if we’d be willing to extend aid to anyone in need, and we’ve likely recognized Jesus’ challenge to do so. The question for us as we leave here with today, I believe, is this: From whom would we be uncomfortable receiving mercy? The answer to that question will present to us a new area of our lives that is ready for the scrutiny of the gospel.
And while I don’t know about anyone here specifically, I can say that our society, our world, has a lot of work to do in this area.
This is one reason I like to contrast the two renderings of The Good Samaritan that I’ve included in this blog post. In the one above, the Samaritan is a pleasant figure, and the whole scene is presented beautifully. In contrast, the image to the right presents the Samaritan as a Quasimodo-like figure, almost grotesque, and it depicts in a visual way the visceral negative reactions Jews of Jesus’ day would’ve had to receiving aid from a Samaritan, to being told that a Samaritan was their neighbor, and that they were therefore commanded to love them as a central tenet of their faith and obedience to God.
How would he have felt, that man in the ditch (assuming he was conscious), to be laying there, praying for help, to see his people, first a respected priest, then a levite, pass him by. Cross over the road to avoid him. Only to then be helped by a despised Samaritan.
Who is our neighbor? Who would we rather not receive aid or care from? Who do we fear appearing vulnerable with? Who is grotesque to us?
This morning (July 14, 2013), when I got in the truck to come to church, the first three stories on the news dealt with this type of division.
The first related to the court case out of Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not not guilty. I learned about the verdict last night when social media blew up with thoughts and opinions. Reading them, I was all the more grateful not to have a television, and not being tempted to listen to the thoughts of the talking heads. I know there are diverse opinions right here in this room about the case–I’ve talked with some of you about them–and I don’t need to get into that. None of us were in the neighborhood that night, and none of us were (physically) in that courtroom or the jury’s deliberation room.
That said, I don’t think anyone can honestly deny the deep divisions highlighted by this case. The anger, frustration, alienation and sadness that stands like a chasm between many of us in our society. The verdict reminded me of a picture I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall, maybe six months ago. He’s the pastor of a black church. In this picture many of his congregation’s adult members (it could’ve been all, or it could’ve been a quarter, I don’t know, but it was a lot of people) were wearing hoodies, and the caption read “do we look suspicious to you?”
That is illustrative of alienation, anger, and sadness . It’s undeniable.
As a pastor friend of mine (@rev_david) from Texas put the question: “Who was Trayvon Martin’s neighbor? Who will be George Zimmerman’s neighbor?”
Who is our neighbor? Who will we be neighbor to, and who will we allow to be neighbor to us?
The second story was about the death of seven UN peacekeepers in Darfur, a region of Sudan that where the people have endured a genocide.
The third was about bombs going off outside of mosques in Baghdad Iraq.
Who is our neighbor? This question echoes across the whole earth among all people and in every nation. Divisions may not be punctuated by IED’s and RPG’s everywhere, but people still suffer and people still die all over the world because of our inability to see the truth of Christ’s teaching. A teaching that stems not from naiveté, not from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but from reality. The reality of human sin. The reality of alienation. The alienation of humanity from God and from one another.
I’ve mention Canon Andrew White to you before. He’s the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. He shared the following comment this morning:
We prayed and hoped for less violence but in the past 12 hrs it has only increased. Scores have been killed in post Ramadan parties, the terrible thing this time is that most of the killings this were directed at the Sunnis and their Mosques. Adding to the fact that we are in a Civil War. Today we look with churches around the world at the story of the Good Samaritan. We ask the question “who is my neighbor”. My neighbor is the other Sunni, Shia, Christian. (Help us Lord to live as one)
The question: “Who is my neighbor?” is always relevant because we always need to be reminded.
How do we get beyond this division? I don’t have a magic formula–and how I wish I did–but I believe we have to start with the small things. We can start where the Samaritan did, with really seeing the man in the ditch and being moved with empathy and compassion. We can start with seeing ourselves in others and seeing them in us.
We can start with actually being neighbors in the more general sense, for one. Recognizing one another in everyday interactions. Saying hello, helping each other in small things, building up the muscles of fellowship to handle the weight of greater adversity. As Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Common Place:
For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and one’s self as a neighbor within it. I am sure that virtues count in the neighborhood–to “love thy neighbor as thyself” requires the help of all seven of them–but I am equally sure that in a neighborhood the virtues cannot be practiced as such. Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions. “He who would do good to another,” William Blake said, “must do it in Minute Particulars.” To help each other, that is, we must go beyond the coldhearted charity of the “general good” and get down to work where we are.
The great task given us in this parable is nothing less than that of getting down to work where we are, and with the people God has placed in our path, and in whose path we have been found. Amen.
I post all this with the caveat that so many things are still up in the air regarding the bombing in Boston.
First Things’ First Thoughts blog posted the following statement from Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov. Just an FYI, Chechnya is a semi-autonomous Republic within the Russian Federation. That means Kadyrov is sort of like a somewhat more powerful state Governor.
Tragic events have happened in Boston. As a result of the terrorist attack people have been killed. We have previously expressed our condolences to those living in the city and the people of America. Today, as reported by mass media, during an attempted arrest a certain Tsarnaev was killed. It would have been logical if he had been detained and an investigation carried out, and all the circumstances and the degree of his guilt figured out. Apparently, special services at any cost were needed to calm society. Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, are in vain. They grew up in the U.S., their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America. The whole world must fight terrorism. This we know better than anyone else. We wish recovery to all the victims and share the Americans’ feelings of sorrow.
People are already bashing Kadyrov for this, but aside from the bluntness, he speaks truthfully. Lessons from our previous experience with terrorism, including 9/11, demonstrate that it is more likely for folks who grow up in the west to become radicalized or to self-radicalize (as Bernard Lewis pointed out, it is important that none of the ethnic Turks who took part in the September 11th plot were raised in Turkey, but instead, were raised and educated in Germany). Certainly this is often, though not universally, done with reference to a tangible connection to what they perceive as an oppressed minority elsewhere.
It’s not always the case that folks who do things like this have stumbled their way into it without a foreign prophet, but it is so often enough that looking close to home makes sense.
Additionally, folks taking offense should take the time to consider the history of Chechnya, and the way its people have suffered because of terrorism, the radicalization of some of their own population, as well as an influx of foreign fighters in the past during their hot conflicts with Russia. It’s understandable they do not want the American media creating a one for one “Chechen = Terrorist” association in the minds of viewers.
Kadyrov is a strong man, and is in power, as I understand it, mostly because he does two things well: listen to Vladimir Putin and keep the lid on terrorism in Chechnya. We shouldn’t get too worked up about his words, even if we find it offensive, because it likely has much more to do with local political realities than ours.
At the same time, the advice to look for the roots of evil close to home is always relevant.
For those who haven’t noticed the phenomenon, there’s an internet meme about “First world problems.” These are problems that aren’t really problems, or at least, they are things that only become problems when you don’t have issues of real gravity to concern yourself with. Here are a few examples:
Lack of clean drinking water = a real problem
Lack of your favorite bottled or flavored variety = first world problem
Make sense? Here’s another:
Lacking access to life saving medical care = a real problem
Lacking access to, or resources for, butt-cheek augmentation = first world problem
Here’s one more:
Being oppressed/jailed/tortured or killed because of your faith (such as Christians in various parts of the world) = a real problem
Google choosing to run a “doodle” about Cesar Chavez rather than one about Easter = definite first world problem
Here’s the offending image:
I like it artistically, as it’s one of the more serious doodles they’ve done.
Out of curiosity, I looked back at the doodle archive, and the only example of an Easter doodle I found was from 2000, and it looked like this:
Notice the prominence of bad pastels and fertility symbol-ish eggs? Nary a cross or empty tomb to be seen. And guess what: who cares? Christians certainly shouldn’t. Google is not a Christian organization, it is a public business. Certainly there are Christians who work at Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin both have a Jewish background. I don’t know how active they are religiously, but that doesn’t matter: Google is made up of a lot of people and serves a lot of people with diverse views, why the heck should they start promoting a particular faith? And more than that, what makes American Christians in particular take offense that this year’s doodle wasn’t related to Easter? As though a doodle would be a great religious statement.
I’ll tell you what I think, I think it’s related to what Walter Percy writes about in his novel The Moviegoer as “certification.” Here’s what he says about it:
“She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”1
I think what Christians are looking for when they get up in arms about crap like this is simply this: they still want the culture to do the heavy lifting for their personal faith. Not only that, but for many, the dulcet tones of a faith-affirming culture–even if that faith is incredibly superficial, as it usually is–can keep the boogeyman of doubt at bay. But I have news for those of you who maintain belief: it’s up to you, not to society, and that’s a very good thing.
Besides, Google has done a lot more to help Christians (and everyone else) through their digitization projects. For example:
And while Google can’t take credit for other projects, such as the digitization taking place at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai or at the Vatican’s Apostolic Library, its efforts have certainly advanced the cause of making knowledge more available, including a large number of texts that are relevant to Christianity and western cultural heritage more broadly.
So, all this is to say, folks getting bent our of shape about Cesar Chavez (a Christian by the way) being honored instead of bunnies, eggs or Jesus: suck it up, gird your loins, and move on.
I first read about this first on the National Review site. Unsurprisingly, McChrystal, who was a darling of the Right after criticizing Obama (an act that led to his retirement), his criticism of something that many on the Right support completely–drones–is discounted by commenters.
“What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” he said in an interview. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
McChrystal said the use of drones exacerbates a “perception of American arrogance that says, ‘Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.'”
So, Beck is doing something pretty cool with his newest album, Song Reader. In many ways this is the return of an old idea. Rather than putting out a CD–or any of his own performances, actually–Beck has invited anyone to download his song sheets and offer their own interpretation of the music: “Only you can bring Beck Hansen’s Song Reader to life.”
First Things has already blogged about how this is a throwback, and also about the way such a process can serve as a metaphor or lens through which to interpret God’s relationship to his creatures. I want to do something a little different, and rather than talk about the history of sheet music vs. recorded performance, or the idea of Divine authorship and the narrative in which we are all independent characters nevertheless pulled toward a providential conclusion, I simply want to share several renditions of one of the songs, “Don’t act like your heart isn’t hard.” Enjoy.