Given in response to Acts 17: 22-31.
I’ve been meaning to tell you a story about my friend Paul. Paul and I have a conflicted relationship but I still count him a friend, and sometimes Paul passes along some pretty good stories. Well, one time Paul—I mean the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, the preacher who dictated all of those letters that later became part of our New Testament—one time Paul was speaking to a group of believers and it started to get late. He’d been talking all evening and it was already midnight. There was a young man sitting in a window, on the second floor where they were gathered, and the young man gets tired as Paul talks on and on with no end in sight. The young man dozes off and falls out of the window, at which time everyone lets out a horrified gasp and then rushes to the outside of the building, finding that the young man has died from the fall. Well Paul is taken aback, suddenly struck with an unspeakable grief because, you see, Paul wasn’t quite done speaking and the whole meeting was getting a bit sidetracked. So Paul rushes downstairs, resuscitates the young man, brings him back from the dead, and then Paul speaks until the crack of dawn. So that’s my friend Paul. I’m not sure if that one shows up in the lectionary but it’s in the 20th chapter of Acts.
And if you rewind just a little bit, flip back a few pages, you’ll find today’s reading in the 17th chapter. Paul has been running his mouth off again—preaching, proselytizing, picking arguments with whatever audience he can find. He’s in Athens, in Greece. Athens wasn’t originally a scheduled stop until Paul got run out of town elsewhere, on account of the fact that he wouldn’t shut up already. So Paul is in Athens, sitting at a place called the areopagus, debating some greek philosophers.
The word Areopagus is sometimes Romanized and rendered as “Mars Hill.” That’s another name for the same place. Areopagus and Mars Hill. And in recent years a lot of new churches have taken the name Mars Hill. Partially because Mars Hill has a better ring to it than Areopagus, but more so because of this story. A lot of new churches read the story of Paul at Mars Hill and they see a mission statement.
Here’s why: Paul is evangelizing, as he always does, but he’s evangelizing in a very particular way. Paul’s doing what we now call apologetics. He’s offering an explanation of Christianity, a defense of Christianity over against Greek beliefs. That’s apologetics—a reasoned argument in defense of a belief system. Now, if you want to be successful at apologetics you need to take a cue from Paul. Notice Paul’s argument. He doesn’t just speak his own beliefs and concepts. He also engages with the ideas that his conversation partners already hold. And he says, like any good apologist, you all are on to something and its not that we’re in disagreement, but let me tell you why my beliefs are actually more complete than yours. Let me tell you why my truth actually speaks your own truth, only better.
Paul says, look, you already believe in something you call an Unknown God. And your own poets have spoken of a deity, they’ve spoken of beings in whom we live and move and have our being, and they’ve said that we’re all that deity’s offspring. And all of that’s true, you’re right, but your Unknown God can now be known. Not through idols or anything that people have built but rather through the work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Paul says, God gave you your belief in an unknown God so that you might search for the God of Jesus, and now I’m here to make the unknown known to you.
So this story of Paul at Mars Hill becomes something of a template for churches that want to make the case for Christianity to people who don’t necessarily know anything about Christianity. And sometimes it works. Our reading says that a couple of people believed and some other folks were at least interested enough that they said, “alright, we’ll talk more later.” Apologetics will sometimes win over converts. It worked for Paul and it works for the Mars Hill churches.
But here’s another thing you need to know about apologetics: apologetics may be directed at outsiders but apologetics is very rarely for outsiders. Do you read many open letters? Around this time of year you can read a lot of open letters that are addressed to new graduates, but some of these letters are not for graduates, graduates are not the intended audience. When you read a letter that’s addressed to recent graduates and the central message seems to be “let me tell you why your generation is the worst generation and why you’ll be the ones to ruin everything if you don’t get off of my generation’s lawn immediately” then it can be safely assumed that the open letter is not actually intended for recent graduates. Well, anyhow, apologetics is sort of like that. It’s addressed to outsiders but it’s meant for insiders. The purpose of apologetics is most often to circle the bandwagons, to essentially guard insiders from outside arguments by misrepresenting outside arguments and then defeating them. Apologetics are spoken as if the purpose is to win over outsiders, but the purpose is usually to make insiders feel good about themselves.
There’s a man named Ken Ham who runs an organization called Answers in Genesis. Ken Ham’s mission is to defend young earth creationism. So scientists will find dinosaur bones and say “we’re pretty sure these are 60 million years old” and Ken Ham will say, “No, they’re 4,000 years old.” So scientists and Ken Ham have a difference of opinion. But you won’t hear Ken Ham say that science is wrong. He’ll say actually the scientists are wrong about science. Science supports my position, in fact. Of course you have to badly mangle science to say something like that, but then again the target audience isn’t scientists.
There is an audience, though, and part of the reason that Ken Ham can find an audience is that no one wants to think that they are wrong, or that their deeply held beliefs might be disreputable by the standards of others. And what you find in the world of apologetics is that if outsiders disagree with you then you can always misrepresent the views of outsiders, with the end result being that insiders consider themselves to be intellectually rigorous and very much respectable according to (what they think are) scientific standards of belief.
But those are other people’s apologetics. We do apologetics, too. I realized, as I was preparing that elegant take down of Ken Ham, that I couldn’t let myself off of the apologetic hook either. Because I’m a Christian but I’m also someone who’s at times very much concerned with the way in which I’m perceived by outsiders. Sometimes I really want to be respectable on other people’s terms. I’ll be out and about somewhere, talking with new acquaintances, and at some point they get around to asking me what I do. I’ll say, “I’m a minister” and then very soon after want to add, “but it’s not what you’re thinking.” Or I’ll very quickly try to bring up some sort of reading that I’d done recently—some book that you wouldn’t expect a minister to read. Or, sometimes, this is fun, I’ll try to say something unbefitting of a minister–something profane or sort of off-beat. It’s fun to see the reaction. But you see it’s important that I’m not viewed as a Ken Ham sort of Christian. That would make me disreputable.
And so, as is often the case, this week it was very troubling for me to remember the Gospel. Especially as it occurred to me all at once that if the Gospel isn’t in some disreputable then it probably isn’t Gospel at all. And I don’t mean we have to reject science and throw in our hats with Ken Ham, but there is something at the heart of Christianity that has always been disreputable.
Some time ago I learned that the very term “Christian” was originally meant as an insult. People who followed Jesus eventually started to call themselves Christians, but Christian was a dirty word at first. It meant, basically, “fanatical.” Christians were people who were pre-occupied with the coming of a Messianic kingdom—selling all of their stuff, forming new communities that provided medical care to outcasts, and just generally going overboard as they acted as if some sort of utopia had arrived.
And my friend the Apostle Paul, who spoke quite a bit, probably too much and yet sometimes really got things right, Paul one time told me that God has a special preference for those who lack prestige, for those who lack standing, for those who reject power and refuse to act in their own interest, for all those who are disreputable by the worlds standards. Paul told the early church members at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to confound the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things.”
I’ve not yet seen those words in a church’s mission statement—not a fundie church or a conservative church or a liberal church. It’s not the stuff of strong apologetics, either.
And yet this is the Gospel: God chooses those who are considered disreputable by the world’s standards. God has a special love and even a preference for all those who are stripped of influence. And God is building, even right now, an upside down Kingdom with the help of all those who are holy enough to be disreputable.
Make that your prayer sometime this week: God, make me holy enough to be disreputable.
Given in response to Matthew 4:1-11.
We’re now in a new church season. It’s the first Sunday of Lent, really just the beginning, only the 5th day of our Lenten observance. Ash Wednesday is still in recent memory and if you attended an Ash Wednesday service you can still call to mind the feeling of the oil and ashes across the forehead, and you can see the smudges imposed on the faces of others, and you can hear the minister who says “remember that you’re dust.” From dust you came and to dust you shall return. We are now in that somber season, the season of preparation called Lent.
I had realized earlier this week, even before Gene called to say that Jerry wasn’t doing well and even before Stan sent news of his loss, I had realized that you wouldn’t greet the season by saying “Happy Ash Wednesday” or “Happy Lent.” Happy is very clearly the wrong word, even under normal circumstances. Even more so now. And I don’t know that there’s an alternative. There’s not really a greeting for Lent. We say blessed Advent, happy Easter, merry Christmas. What do you say about Lent? What do you say to the person observing Lent?
There’s a reason we don’t have a greeting for Lent. It’s because Lent is a bit of a downer, and very few people are actually excited to see Lent. You spot Lent from across the room, you see that you’re in the same vicinity and you might be required to have a conversation, and your first inclination is to avoid eye contact. “Maybe Lent won’t see me.” You notice out of the corner of your eye that Lent is sort of drifting around the room, can’t find anyone to talk to. Suddenly Lent spots you, makes a beeline for your side of the room and you know that you’re trapped. You say “Wow, it’s so good to see you, but you know I was just getting ready to leave…”
But Lent has a way of catching up to you, maybe during the 40 days that’ve been allotted but maybe some other time. Your friend Lent is persistent and Lent has a lot to talk about, and a lot to ask of you. Lent would like for you to renounce something, preferably something you find comforting or hard to do without. Leave it alone for 40 days and see how that goes. Lent would like to talk about intentionality, discipline, introspection, self-denial. It can all be very draining. But probably the main reason no one wants Lent around is that Lent wants always to speak of dust and ashes and death. Just in time for the beginnings of Spring and in the midst of all that new life you’ll find Lent imposing ashes, reminding everyone, all of us, that we are mortal, limited, finite. And the worst part is that we have to acknowledge eventually that Lent is speaking the truth–the truth about our need to give things up and the truth about our mortality. In fact, the ashes and the spiritual practices go hand in hand. We give things up, habits and objects and attachments, we loosen our grasp for a while because we could never hope to hold them anyway, at least not forever.
That’s Lent, and I think we can be excused for declining to call it happy or merry or blessed.
I suppose that’s part of the reason why we do so much planning. We do a lot of preparation before and during Lent.This is some serious, heavy stuff we’re talking about so you’ll want to be prepared. You need to start thinking about it before Ash Wednesday arrives.
“What are you giving up Lent?”
Oh, I don’t know…Chocolate, maybe meat, definitely not caffeine.”
Something difficult but something doable. Its no use to pick something you can’t follow through on. We call it “intentionality”, that’s the church-speak, “intentionality.” So you plot out the course of action but more importantly you sit down to think about why, why are we doing these things? I saw a very good list of 40 Lenten practices, one for each day. A church in Denver put it together. It’s 40 small practices instead of one big practice. And they’re all very well thought-out. All are in the Lenten spirit in one way or another. Some are religious–pray for your enemies one day, read Psalm 39 another. You might, one day, donate art supplies, or ask forgiveness of someone, or bake a cake, or turn off the radio while riding in the car. Some of them don’t sound spiritual but they could be. If you’re in the Lenten mindset then you’ll find that even regular activities strengthen your Lenten spirituality.
And I hope you’ll do some of those things, or maybe even all of those things. A well-planned Lent is bound to be a productive Lent, and it would be a shame to let a perfectly good liturgical season go to waste by failing to plan for it.
However. I wanted to point out that planning can only go so far because there is a Lent you can’t plan for. You might’ve noticed that’s the name of the sermon–the Lent you can’t plan for. Well, what needs to be said today is that you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes. Of course you can plan to attend a service and you can choose to step forward at the appropriate time and you can wear the ashes around all day, to school and to work. You’ll forget just for a moment that you’re wearing the ashes until someone double takes or glances quickly at your forehead, and then you’ll be reminded of what the ashes signify–that you’ve been marked by Christ, baptized with the same baptism and called by the same Spirit into the same wilderness. And you’ll remember that Lent is a season of preparation.
But all of that is symbolic. And while you can plan to wear the symbol of the ashes you cannot plan, cannot anticipate the moment when you’ll actually experience what the ashes are trying to represent. The minister says, “You came from dust and you’ll return to dust, eventually.” And you hear the words, wear the ashes, understand the ritual. But you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes, not if the imposition of ashes is meant to contain the reality of mortality. Because the only way to fully understand our mortality is through death, through the death of someone else, and you cannot prepare to lose a friend.
* * *
I wanted to point out just a couple of things about today’s reading, a couple of details from the story of Christ’s temptation that seemed relevant this week. First is that Jesus doesn’t seem to do any sort of planning for the Wilderness. Maybe he did and the story just fails to mention the planning, but I wondered while reading the story if Jesus had any idea the how the whole episode was going to unfold. Remember that Jesus doesn’t get there on his own. He goes to the wilderness because he’s led there by the Spirit, so there are already two people characters involved. Then he fasts, forty days and forty nights, and after fasting he is famished. At this point a third character shows up–we call him the devil or the adversary or the tempter–this third character shows up when Jesus is at his very weakest, maybe even when he’s close to death. That’s when this encounter happens. Not when Jesus is at his strongest and best-prepared and most spiritually intentional. The temptation happens probably at the worst possible time, at the time when Jesus is probably most unprepared.
Well, then Jesus is tempted. He’s hungry, practically starving, and the tempter says “feed yourself.” And the tempter says if you’re so powerful why don’t you throw yourself off of a building and then call on angels to save you. And the tempter says, finally, why don’t you grab hold of political power. I can offer you that but first you need to bow down and worship me.
Three temptations, three different temptations, but in all three cases Jesus is being asked to deny his mortality. What the tempter is proposing is that Jesus become a superhuman–someone who could never be hungry or harmed physically or be subject to the whims of any earthly ruler. And the tempter, because he is shrewd, always shrewd, proposes all of this when Jesus is at his most famished and most human, just as he’s standing toe to toe with the reality of death.
And that, for me at least, doesn’t sound like the sort of Lent you could plan for. I’ve not yet heard of anyone who could prepare to face death, or to confront their mortality, or to receive an imposition of ashes. How’s that for an irony–you can’t prepare for the inevitable, not completely.
I thought maybe Jesus could show us how to navigate Lent, but Jesus didn’t seem very well prepared for Lent either, at least not if preparation means having any easy time of it. Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? A few more characters show up, only in the last verse, they are practically an aside. The episode concludes with the tempter taking his leave and then suddenly, the text says suddenly angels appear and they start ministering to Jesus.
Jesus–the one we call the Great Physician–does not heal himself. God sends helpers.
If you’re looking for the heart of Lent, here it is. Not in the fasting or in the ashes or even in the confrontation of our mortality, but in what comes next. And one thing we know about our God, the God of Jesus, is that God always sends help after an imposition of ashes.
Given in response to Matthew 5: 21-37.
Thank you to Helen for that New Testament reading. This one’s a real doozy. That’s the scholarly term. Helen asked if I was in the habit of preaching the lectionary and I said, “yes, I preach the lectionary.” I should’ve checked the contents first.
First of all I need to point out, it would be irresponsible if I failed to point out, that under no circumstances should you actually pluck your eye out. That would be crazy. And normally I try avoid making definite statements about much of anything, but I can also advise that you shouldn’t cut of your right hand, either. You learn these sorts of things when you’ve been in seminary for almost 3 years.
Alright. Probably the most honest way to deal with a text like this one is to acknowledge that if anyone else besides Jesus had said this stuff then we wouldn’t feel any need to seriously consider it. But because it’s Jesus and because Jesus is somewhat important to the Christian tradition we feel compelled to offer up some type of explanation. Sometimes what happens is that Jesus has his heart in the right place but then he goes a bit overboard. That seems to be what’s happening here. He’s trying to make a point so he exaggerates. Sometimes a parent will say something like, “if you don’t clean your room by tonight you’ll be grounded until you’re 18.” And they’re saying it to an 11 year old so generally the assumption is that they’re exaggerating a bit. But the point is they’re really serious about it. That’s one way you might try to understand what Jesus is up to in passages like these. He’s not being literal so much as he’s trying to raise the stakes.
And of course most of this sounds pretty unrealistic. For example, Jesus says Everyone knows its wrong to commit adultery, but now I’m saying don’t even think about it. Trouble is, you don’t always choose your thoughts. We sometimes say things like “it occurred to me…” or “it happened to cross my mind…” And what both both phrases indicate is that the thought presented itself, it’s not as if you willingly chose to conjure it up in your mind’s eye. What’s probably more practical than saying don’t even think about it is the advice I often get while meditating. They’ll say, “if a thought occurs to you then you should acknowledge the thought but don’t grasp onto it. Acknowledge it but don’t judge it or mull it over, just let it go.” Well, Jesus says don’t even think about it, so he’s not terribly practical here but he is setting the bar pretty high.
I’m most interested today in the last few verses of the reading. Do you recall what Jesus says about oaths? “You’ve heard that it was said to those of ancient times ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven or by the earth or by Jerusalem. Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” He’s saying, basically, don’t lie, speak plainly, say what you mean. If you’re not in the habit of lying then you shouldn’t need to take oaths. So just say Yes when you mean Yes and No when you mean No.
I’m interested in those verses because they seem out of place. Jesus gives a bunch of instructions that are exaggerated, hyperbolic, more or less impossible, and then he says “Don’t lie.” And I know some people have a hard time telling the truth, and I also know about those conversations regarding the morality of lying–maybe in some cases the right thing or the best thing is to lie, like if you’re hiding refugees and their lives are in danger. But on the whole I don’t think the advice about oaths and lying fits with the rest of the passage. It’s not nearly as demanding and I think if I had to take one of these admonitions seriously, meaning literally, then I’d definitely pick this one. Pluck an eye out, cut off a hand, don’t take oaths. Uhhh, I’ll go with the thing about the oaths, please.
Well, as it turns out, this whole business about the oaths and plain speech might be a bit more difficult than I was thinking. Let your word be Yes if you mean Yes and No if you mean No. Speak plainly. Tell the truth. But then, some speech isn’t true or false. In fact, some speech isn’t concerned with truth at all. Some speech skirts the truth, changes the topic, obfuscates. Some speech is much more concerned with leaving an impression than conveying true information. I’m not sure if they had a name for that kind of speech in the ancient world, but we call that kind of speech B.S.
I understand there are some college students in attendance, so if you’re unclear about the precise meaning of B.S. I’d recommend you find one of them after the service. (I know the former-students of older generations don’t know anything about this sort of thing but I’m sure the current students could fill you in.) It’s getting towards the end of the semester and your professor starts talking about that term paper you were supposed to start on 2 months ago. The professor says what I’m looking for is a level of engagement with the sources that demonstrates a high level of understanding, and what I want most of all is a strong thesis; make an argument. But the thing with arguments is that they’re a lot easier to make when you care about something, and sometimes you don’t actually care about this stuff. So what do you do? If you’re clever you know how to write the argument as if its the most important thing in the world. And later on you get to tell your friends that paper was B.S. but it was elegant B.S. and I got an A.
And it’s not just students. Sometimes you’ll be at a panel discussion or watching a debate somewhere and the participants are spouting off about how much respect they have for one another– “I am thankful and honored to be in the same room as my most esteemed colleague Mr. Smith”– And you can just tell that they hate each other’s guts. It’s important, though, to keep up appearances. It’s important to play the sort of roll that’s expected of you even if you don’t believe in it.
Here’s an assignment for the week: try to keep an eye out for speech that’s not false but also isn’t true. In other words: look for people who are playing a role that they really don’t believe in. I think if you’re perceptive you’ll notice a lot of frivolous B.S.–most of it’s harmless. But occasionally you’ll see someone trying to play a role, and you’ll notice that they’re doing a very poor job. They’re wearing a forced smile, they’re eyes are sad, dull. Something is wrong. Someone will ask if they’re okay but you can tell exactly what answer they’d prefer to hear and you can actually see their sense of relief when they hear “Fine, I’m fine, really.” Everyone says, “Well, he must be fine. He just said so.” And often times no one cares that it’s clearly an act. They’re willing to pretend he’s playing the role well, leaving the right impression, even though this is obviously some very sad and soul-sapping B.S.
I remember learning somewhere, in class or while working as a chaplain maybe, I learned that people who are grieving, people who are having a hard time, they find the performance of wellness far more draining than actually dealing with their pain and grief. And they find at most turns people willing to cheer on the whole charade. Saying, “cheer up and you’ll feel better.” Advising them to “fake it ‘til they make it.” Repeating again and again, “pull yourself out of it.” But it turns out they were never in it at all. They were trying the whole time to play a role, trying to seem like they’d dealt with the pain instead of actually dealing with it. And all the while people are saying Cheer up, Smile, Get over it.
And so, I need to take back what I said earlier. It can be difficult, dreadfully difficult to speak plainly. Think of how rarely you hear someone say “No, I’m not fine, not really at all.” If I say Tell the truth, speak plainly, Yes for Yes, No for No; and if I also say no B.S. and no playing roles you don’t believe in, well, suddenly that seems like a tall order. And it is difficult, admittedly, but it’s not impossible. Because even with so many people saying Smile, Cheer up, Get over it, there is still an alternative witness to be spoken–the Christian witness, Our witness.
Our witness sometimes sounds like a reminder that you don’t need to get over things yourself. No, we’ll move through it together.
Our witness is always saying that we want to hear your plain truth even if it’s not a happy truth.
And our witness speaks most of all about a God who pulls Jesus through, even through the grave. And every time we’re gathered is a reminder: The God who pulls Jesus through is pulling all of us through as well, restoring us somehow–we know not how–but somehow nonetheless.