Archive for liberty

Imaging Love

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by timtrue

plato-300x254

Matthew 25:14-30

1.

It’s not lost on me that today’s Gospel falls on our Ingathering Sunday.

This parable involves talents. Talents are money. Lots of money!

And it’s Ingathering Sunday, the day where we collect all our pledge cards and offer them up to God in hopes that we will be blessed in the coming year. And by “we will be blessed,” you and I both know what I mean: that the church will make ends meet and then some!

Oh, the temptation!

“Don’t be like that third slave,” I could preach, “for he took his talent and suppressed it. He buried it in the dirt; and ended up in that dark place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We don’t want to be like him, do we? Well, here’s your chance. Pledge!”

Or, I could exhort, “Be like the first and second slaves. They took huge economic risks with their master’s money. And these risks paid off! Don’t you see? God wants you to take huge economic risks in what you pledge this year. Do it! And God will reward you.”

I could preach these kinds of things, sure. And, sad to say, many preachers will in fact expound along these lines today.

But—at the risk of losing a sales-pitch opportunity—my conscience steers me in another direction. I don’t think that this parable is telling you and me to empty our pockets for Jesus (though, if you want to interpret it this way, I won’t stand in the way!).

2.

Rather, the point of today’s parable is about how we understand—how we image—God.

We touched on this a few weeks back. The religious leaders that Jesus confronted had imaged God as a king, largely removed from the lives of his people. God is often likened to a king in the scriptures, after all.

But there are many other words, other images, associated with God in the Bible: father; mother hen; fire; wind; word; lover; friend; etc.

Do you image God as king? as father? as fire?

Or how about harsh taskmaster? For you, does God reap where he doesn’t sow? Does God gather where he did not spread seed? Are you afraid of God?

That’s how the third slave saw his master.

And, after all, he’s the focal point of today’s parable.

The first and second slaves do what is right: they’re the ones who take their master’s resources and double them, riskily living out their calling, as Jesus teaches his disciples to do.

But the first and second slaves are nearly identical. Other than the difference in amounts of resources, both go out and double what they were given; both do it in the same way; and both are welcomed and received by their master with the same words.

These first two slaves, much as they might teach us about stewardship, are merely setting the stage for what is to follow.

And what does follow is a sharp contrast:

in the way the third slave stewards;

and, especially, in the way he views, or images, his master.

“I knew you were a harsh man,” he says, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

Unlike the first and second slaves, who feel absolute liberty in using their master’s resources, and are themselves received with similar liberty, the third slave is afraid, constrained by his image of his master.

It’s not that the master is harsh at all. Rather, everything about his actions demonstrates generosity. It’s all in how the third slave views his master.

This third slave is like the religious leaders Jesus has been confronting since he arrived in Jerusalem some days ago. Long had they imaged God as a distant, aloof king who rules by law and judgment, a deity to be feared. And thus, in accordance with their image of God, they had established a religious system that held its people under a cloud of fear.

3.

Which brings up a good point: a good way to discern how we image God is to examine our own behavior. Whether we realize it or not, we act like the God we image.

So, for instance, how do we address God in prayer?

As a church, we say the Lord’s Prayer together weekly: here we address God, “Our Father in heaven.”

Also, I thumbed through fifty-one pages of collects in our BCP (pp. 211-61) and found these addresses:

Almighty God; Merciful God; Lord; God; Eternal Father; Father in heaven; Almighty and everlasting God; Most loving Father; Gracious Father; Almighty and everliving God; Lord God; Almighty Father; King of glory; Almighty and merciful God; Lord of all power and might; Blessed Lord; Everliving God; Lord of glory; Lord God Almighty; Gracious God; Almighty and gracious Father; Eternal Lord God; and Merciful Creator.

Rich and varied as these addresses are, most of them suggest distance, as if God is away from us, in heaven, ruling and reigning from on high—from somewhere else. A few, like “God” and “Gracious God,” are ambiguous: distance is neither suggested nor not suggested. But none of them addresses a God who is already present.

These are our collects. These are the prayers we say as the liturgy begins. The implication is that God is far off in a heavenly throne room somewhere until I, the ordained celebrant, summon God to be present with all of us.

Frankly, this is bad theology, a hangover from the medieval image of God as powerful and aloof king. If we say as a church we don’t view God this way—and we do say this: that God is always present with each of us and all of us—perhaps it’s time to revise some, maybe even a lot, of our liturgy.

Or maybe the reality is that we actually image God this way after all without realizing it.

Well, that’s an example from us as a church. What about you personally?

How do you address God in your personal prayers? Is it always, “Almighty God,” or, “Father in heaven”? Have you ever tried addressing God as “Caregiver,” “Friend,” or even “Lover”? What about something like, “Nurturing Mother”?

I’m not saying you should; I’m not saying you shouldn’t. You have liberty. I’m simply trying to make the point that we understand God largely in terms of how we image God; and we subconsciously live out our faith in accordance with this image.

A good dose of self-examination here can do us a lot of good. It might even motivate us to rethink our image of God.

4.

Of course, Jesus gives us an image: Jesus tells us that God is love.

But how do we image love? Love is an action; an ideology. How do we form an image of action or ideology in our mind’s eye?

I don’t know that we can. Love may be simply too abstract.

But what we can do is recall how it looks when played out. What does love look like? It’s a meal given to a hungry person. It’s a quilt received by someone in need of healing. It’s a kind word spoken at the right time.

Really? Is a hot meal an image of God? Is a quilt? What about a word? Jesus himself is called the Word of God.

Perhaps this is what Jesus has been pointing to all along:

  • Seeing God in the smile on your daughter’s face at the dinner table as you crack a silly joke
  • Realizing that God is everywhere around you as you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store
  • Hearing God in a piece of music
  • Observing God’s hand in nature
  • Sensing God’s very presence in the middle of a heated discussion at diocesan convention

Is this what Jesus means when he says, “God is love”?

5.

I am reminded here of a story about Socrates, that great Greek thinker.

His is arguably the second most tragic death in the history of human civilization.

He walked the earth long before Christ, executed in 399 BCE.

Like Christ, he never wrote a word—that we know of anyway. He is remembered through the testimony of others, especially his disciple Plato.

So, the Greek world of Socrates’s day, as you know, imaged God as a pantheon.

Zeus was the father god of the earthly realm; while his brothers Poseidon and Hades ruled the sea and the underworld, respectively.

Of course, there were also Hera, Zeus’s wife; Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter (born out of his head, by the way); Apollo, Zeus’s son from an adulterous relationship; Ares, Zeus and Hera’s son, whom (according to Homer) they hated; and so on and so forth.

But, as you can surmise already from the little I’ve told you, the popular image of God in Socrates’s day was nothing short of divine dysfunction!

And Socrates knew it!

So, one of his more brilliant ideas was that, yes, there must be some kind of deity, for everyday life has all kinds of pointers shouting out so; but, no, this deity simply could not be—to borrow from The Kinks—a mixed up, funked up, shook up pantheon (except for Lola—or Hera, as it were).

In other words, for Socrates there was in fact a deity, but not as the popular image portrayed it.

Socrates realized that the world around him, wanting to approach the divine, had fashioned for itself concrete images of the divine. These images were the pantheon, a kind of high court of deities, gods that looked, for all intents and purposes, a lot like regular people, with all their warts and weaknesses—not unlike DC Comics’ Justice League.

Still, Socrates knew, there was something of God in each of these images; yet all of God could not be contained by any of them. Concrete images cannot capture the ineffable. By definition, it’s impossible!

Anyway, Socrates’s downfall was teaching the youth to see through—or beyond—these popular images of deity. “God is not a pantheon,” he declared, “but One. God cannot be contained by images.”

And for this—for leading Athens’ youth astray into what his opponents called atheism(!)—Socrates was tried, found guilty, and made to drink the poisonous hemlock.

Tragedy came upon the world because one man dared to challenge its popular images of God.

Jesus challenged a popular image of God in his day too—the image of God as king; and again tragedy came upon the world.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like the third slave in today’s parable. I don’t want to view God as a harsh taskmaster, which simply perpetuates the fear, shame, and guilt that already runs rampant in our society.

Rather, I want to be like the first and second slaves. These guys took risks! These guys understood and lived into their freedoms! And in the end they were elevated to a kind of equality with their master.

Yet even more than that, I want to be like Jesus, who imaged God as love. For in imaging God as love, we become love.

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2014 Lent 21

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on March 28, 2014 by timtrue

celtic yin yang

I Corinthians 9:16-27

Work is paradoxical.

We encourage children from the earliest age to think about what they want to be when they grow up.  We also tell them that they can aspire to be anything they want professionally.

Right now, in my own family, I have a daughter on the cusp of graduating from high school.  I’m giving her lots of counsel about a possible major, the adult work world, and so on.  Wouldn’t it be great if she could find the perfect blend of low stress and high pay?  But what is that?  Every doctor and lawyer I know deals with stress, usually lots of it.  Not sure I’d want to wish a life of that on her for all the money in the world.  But every low-stress job I can think of is low paying–except, perhaps, some teaching gigs and the arts.

Anyway, we raise children with a sense of liberty towards work.  “Work hard in school,” we say, “so that when you graduate you can do something you love.”  I even heard Ryan Seacrest say something along these lines last night on national TV: “‘Cause when you love what you do, it’s not work.”

So a lot of kids grow up with the idea that they will pick a field of work they love, of their own choosing.  And many succeed at it.

There are those, however, who end up doing something they’re not entirely fond of, something that was never a dream for them, in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their loved ones.  In fact, this may be the majority of folks out there.  Next time you’re in a restaurant, for instance, just look around.  How many table servers, cashiers, and managers do you think got into this facet of the hospitality industry because they were following a dream?  For these folks, work must feel something like enslavement.

So the kids in the first scenario end up seeming privileged over those in the second.  For the first end up doing what they love, and it doesn’t feel like work to them, at least according to Ryan Seacrest.  But the second face daily drudgery, working for the man, as it were.

But, you know, in each scenario the tables can be turned.  In the first, where liberty points us to find a career, in time the obligation still turns the job into labor, toil, even drudgery.  No lawyers and doctors I know fit the second scenario; that is, they went into their field following a dream.  But most (if not all) end up feeling somewhat enslaved to their positions after a while.

On the other hand, one of the most joyful persons–and in that sense one of the most liberated souls–I know is Daniel, my gardener.  He entered this line of work for little more reason than to make ends meet.  Yet I’m sure he sleeps very well at night, free from most (if not all) anxieties and stresses that plague others.

So Paul mentioned liberty yesterday.  Today he says that in his liberty he has entered a sort of enslavement so that others might be won over to the good news of Christ.

We can transfer the paradoxical nature of work over to self-discipline.  Christians who enter into a Lenten discipline do so voluntarily, in liberty, into a sort of self-imposed forty-day enslavement.

But maybe paradox isn’t the best way to look at it.  Maybe, instead, what we should see in all this is balance.

Does this sound eastern to you?  Wherever there is some yin, there must also be some yang.

Yes, it is eastern–in the sense that it resonates with worldviews with origins in the far east.

But it also resonates with Christian origins.  Paul writes about it here, after all.  And didn’t Jesus himself teach in a paradoxical way–or, in other words, in a way that seeks balance?  How is it that we are already raised to new life and members of a new kingdom yet still must die an earthly death on this here-and-now kingdom?  And so on.

I looked for an image (on Wikimedia, so copyright issues are copacetic), as I often do, to illustrate this post.  How interesting to find an ancient Celtic piece of art with yin-yang symbolized on it!  It dates from the mid-first century AD, a full century after Julius Caesar conquered Britannia.  Had Christianity, or the school of thought leading to Christianity, yet reached the island by the time this piece of art was made?  It’s debatable–not to be ruled out, but neither to be assumed.  What is certain is that western thought had entered the island.  So, apparently, had eastern.

Doesn’t this provide us with another picture of liberty and enslavement?

The ancient Celts knew what it meant to live at rest in tension–to live in balance.

So did Paul.

We can too, whether it involves job dissatisfaction, unrealized dreams, factions in the church, political unrest, wars, or simply the joys and sorrows of everyday life.

2014 Lent 20

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 27, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 9:1-15

“O-oh we’re halfway there, / O-oh living on a prayer.”

These words of Jon Bon Jovi are a tribute to all of us who’ve embarked on some kind of Lenten discipline this year.  Yep, today marks the halfway point.  Hang in there!  You can do it!

But what’s Bon Jovi got to do with today’s passage?

I’m sure Jon Bon Jovi didn’t go into music thinking he’d make a lot of money at it–though he has.  I’m sure it wasn’t some sort of enslaving obligation for him, some drudgery that he hated facing day after day, practicing guitar and singing only to fulfill a sadistic obligation foisted upon him by a cruel music-teacher-tyrant.  Rather, he got into music because he loved it; he felt some sort of passion for it, a conviction that it was somehow the right thing for him to do.

Well, the apostle Paul did the same thing.

No, I don’t mean he learned the guitar at a young age, skipped a lot of school, and played and sang in dimly lit clubs, doing whatever work he could find to get by.  But he had a similar passion and conviction–for promoting the good news of Christ.  And he did in fact do whatever work he could to get by.

For Paul is was making tents.  It was seen as demeaning work to some.  But it paid the bills and allowed him the freedom to take the gospel with him wherever the spirit led.

One of the places he took the gospel was Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  And, lo and behold, people there believed the message and an assembly of believers soon formed.  This must have been exciting for Paul, something like Jon Bon Jovi experiencing his first song to play on the radio, “Runaway” (in 1982), becoming an overnight local hit.  But still he sought no pay for his work–Paul, that is, not JBJ.

But, unfortunately, the Corinthians apparently turned Paul’s philanthropy against him, saying (something like) that he asked for no pay because he himself knew he deserved no pay, that he was something of a fraud.

Don’t you hate that!  You do something nice for someone and they use it against you!

But Paul had personal liberty to do make tents, right?  He could continue his demeaning, lower-class work (very likely how the Corinthians viewed it) for the sake of the advancement of the gospel if he wanted to; just as JBJ had liberty to sweep his cousin’s studio while pursuing a career in rock and roll if he wanted to, which he in fact did.

So my point comes in the form of a question: why use someone’s liberty against him?  Why be like the Corinthians and turn a person’s choice–generated from a spirit of philanthropy and generosity no less!–into an opportunity for division?

2014 Lent 19

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by timtrue

Weizenbier

I Corinthians 8:1-13

As I’ve been slogging through St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this Lent, I’ve been trying to keep the idea in mind that Paul’s intent here is to combat division.  That’s what I’ve heard for years is the gist of this letter.  And it fits with the stuff we’ve already encountered regarding getting immorality out of the church.  It fits too with something I know is coming, around chapters 10 and 11, where the rich are excluding the poor in the congregation from communion.  A pox on social injustice!  But what about chapters 6-8?

For the past couple of chapters Paul has been discussing marriage and, by extension, family; now, in chapter 8, he moves on to discuss eating habits.  Both of these discussions are very personal in nature.  So, I’ve been asking myself, “Self, what’s all this got to do with division?”

Well, to answer briefly, I’m still not sure.  I’ll still be asking this question in the days ahead, in other words.  Maybe I’ll figure out a reasonable answer in the next few days; or maybe I won’t.  That’s part of what keeps me coming back to the New Testament, by the way: it poses many riddles to me, some of which I will never be able to answer, surely.  It’s challenging.  But, at the same time, it’s rewarding and it immensely shapes my view of the world.

Nevertheless, today I’ve found a foothold, a place to grab onto this particular riddle, rest for a bit, catch my breath, and think.  For today Paul actually uses the word liberty.  Do you see it?  Right there in the middle of verse 9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

The particular focus is on eating meat formerly used in sacrifice to idols, probably pagan, certainly not to the God of the Jews or to Christ.  Some of the Corinthian believers had no moral scruples about eating such meat, apparently, while others did.

For something similar in our modern-day, alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos come to mind.  Some modern American Christians, especially of the fundamentalist stripe, have real problems with these things, in some cases even calling the use of them sins.  (“Jesus didn’t turn the water into wine as we know it,” I’ve heard a preacher say, “but grape juice.  That’s why it was called ‘the best wine’: the best wine wasn’t fermented!”)  But, on the other hand, many other Christians have no problem morally with having a beer, enjoying a glass of wine, sipping a whisky on the back porch at sunset, lighting up a stogie, or covering vast portions of the body with permanent art (or kitsch if you prefer).

Anyway, perhaps this eating of meat sacrificed to idols was causing something of a division in the Corinthian church, that “stumbling block” Paul mentions–just like alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos cause division today.  (One wonders where trajectory will take us with the legalization of marijuana, yeah?)

But what if we look at the flip-side?  What if we look at it from the perspective of liberty?

Then maybe it’s the ones who have the problem who are being divisive.  Seriously, if someone I work with has a problem with the way I tie my shoe, is that my problem?  So this person confronts me: “Um, Tim, I notice you don’t make two loops before making your knot.  Instead, you do this weird thing to make your second loop–I can’t even explain.  It just bugs me!  So stop doing it that way.  Please.”  Really, should this become my problem?

So extend it to a beer.  If I happen to stop by Trader Joe’s on my way home from work and pick up a six-pack of oatmeal stout, then go home and enjoy a few with a fish-and-chips dinner, why is it suddenly my problem if a friend, a relative, or a parishioner doesn’t like it?

Etc.

This is my foothold, by the way.  Paul is dealing with division in the Corinthian church, so I’ve heard.  Fine and well.  But he’s also dealing with liberty.  The Corinthians were free to marry or not to marry, as their consciences and circumstances allowed.  They were also free to eat meat grilled with pagan spices.  Just so, we are free to drink a beer brewed in a brewery owned by an atheist.  Why should these actions lead to division?

So I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is more about liberty than division.  If so, those exercising liberty should use prudence, sure.  I’m not going to hang out with a recovering alcoholic at the local microbrewery.  But the flip-side is just as important: those who are wired in such a way that they look for division, or even cause division, should be slow to confront and quick to examine their own hearts–to look at the plank in their own eye, as Jesus put it, before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.