Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hunt for Redemption

Today is not actually the feast day of the Rev. Robert Hunt (Tuesday was) but one of the things I like about preaching about saints and other notable Christians outside the Bible is that we see how God works through people in all kinds of situations. Robert Hunt was the chaplain of the first successful English colony in America. He preached the first Protestant sermon on this continent and celebrated the first holy communion. But what interested me was the prologue to all that. He had to leave his first parish because his wife committed adultery. He moved; she and their 2 children did not. Then he had to leave his second parish because of an accusation that he had committed adultery with his servant. He was also accused of absenteeism and neglecting his congregation. Not a promising start to his career as clergy.

So why was he chosen by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be the chaplain on this expedition to the New World? I don't know. Maybe the Archbishop thought Hunt wouldn't have the same problems since everyone on the trip was male. Maybe he thought he was expendable. But whatever his deficiencies in his first 2 parishes in England, Hunt rose to the occasion of his position in America. He was praised for resolving numerous disputes among the colonists and keeping the peace. A fire destroyed his library and all his belongings and he didn't complain. The colony suffered disease and starvation and attacks by Native Americans and yet his parishioners recalled Hunt's courage in the face of all these hazards. Most of the inhabitants of Jamestown died that first year. Robert Hunt was one of them. He was only 39. They buried him in the chancel of his church and recently archaeologists have found his bones. Today there is a shrine at the spot in the Historic Jamestowne National Park.

Saints are not perfect people. Jacob was a conman; Noah was a drunk; Moses killed a man and hid the body; Peter denied Jesus while Christ was being tried; Paul was complicit in the murder of the first Christian martyr, Stephen the deacon. God doesn't work with perfect people (not that he has any other kind to choose from). We're all sinners. But God is gracious and though he doesn't need us to accomplish his purposes, he chooses to include us in his plans. He gives us his Holy Spirit and works through us to bring his good news of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation to the world. Jesus even said we would do greater works than he did! How? For one thing, through the sheer number of his believers around the world. Jesus healed hundreds, maybe thousands; church-run hospitals and clinics have healed millions. Jesus fed thousands; Christian food pantries and soup kitchens and charities have fed hundreds of millions. Jesus preached to thousands; today billions have heard the gospel preached.

And, yes, in our churches we have sinners, people who do and say bad and sometimes terrible things. Some are hypocrites. But some are just people who are trying to follow Jesus and stumble. And what do we do when someone falls and repents? We are commanded to forgive them. Heck, Jesus asked God to forgive those who were in the process of crucifying him and they weren't even asking for forgiveness. How can we act less nobly than he?

None of us is perfect. And yet in the New Testament we are all called saints. We are not holy because of what we do. God sanctifies us through his Spirit. God can take an ordinary sinner and do extraordinary things through him or her. All he asks is that we trust him and follow his son wherever he leads us. It may be across an ocean or it may be across that great distance that often comes between us and a fellow human being. Whether we have wronged them or they have wronged us, Jesus calls us to reach out and be peacemakers, like Robert Hunt. And then we too will be called children of God.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Limits of Theology

I can drive a car, as I've said, without understanding precisely how an internal combustion engine works. I do need to know how to turn the engine on, how to steer and brake, the traffic laws and the fact that my car needs gasoline and periodic maintenance to keep it running. Some people have a desire to learn more and fortunately there are books and websites that will let you get into the details.

The essentials of what we Christians believe are in the creeds. These in turn are distilled from the Bible. But even the Bible doesn't explain everything. It tells us that Jesus died to save us from our sins but it doesn't explain precisely how that works. It tells us God exists but doesn't lay down philosophical arguments for his existence. And so when Christian beliefs were attacked, men and women who had philosophical talents often rose to the challenge of defending them with reason. One such person was St. Anselm, a Benedictine monk who was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

I'm not going to do an exposition of his ontological proof of God or his satisfaction theory of the atonement. But they were landmarks in the history of theology and serious theologians must study and consider them even if they disagree with them. And that's important in theology. The creeds give us the bare bone facts that we affirm; theology is the explanations we develop that help us see such things as reasonable to ourselves and others. But theology is generated by humans and it can be fallible. Even in science there is a difference between data and the interpretation of the data. As science progresses, old interpretations of what is going on may be superseded by newer and better interpretations. And the same thing happens in theology.

I myself, as a nurse, have found medical analogies useful in explaining how spiritual things work. Why for instance did Jesus have to die to save us? In scripture there are a lot of references to our need to have a change of heart. In Ezekiel God talks of taking out our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh. So what if we think of Jesus has our heart donor? If you have congestive heart failure, the only cure that we presently have is a heart transplant. For that, of course, the donor must die. If our spiritual healing is at all analogous to the way physical healing works, then the idea that the donor of our new life must himself die is a useful metaphor. But if this approach doesn't help you, drop it.

And remember: saying something is a metaphor doesn't mean it's not true; it means you are using a picture to give insight about something that is real but hard to grasp. Those pictures of atoms, looking like planets being orbited by moons, that we see in science textbooks are not really what atoms are like. They are the artist's best attempt to depict something impossible to see with the eye and very difficult to conceptualize.

We cannot and will not know how everything we encounter in this life works. Scientists can't even figure out how consciousness works. How can I be the same person I was at 8 years old when every cell in my body has died and been replaced many times over? Yet you and I remain uniquely ourselves. We get bigger, we grow hair in places that previously had none, our voices get deeper, we get stronger, and then we get wrinkles, we get weaker, we shrink a bit but our loved ones don't say “you are at all not the same person.” Even if our opinions change, our quirks, our sense of humor, our love of certain subjects or hobbies or things in this world persist. We change yet we stay consistently ourselves. We are a paradox. Why do we expect God to be easier to understand than we are?

You don't have to understand everything about a fact to believe it. More importantly you don't have to understand everything about a person to love them. But if you love someone, you want to learn everything you can about them anyway. And if you love God, you want to understand whatever you possibly can about him. Just be prepared to be surprised by him—continually. And never assume you know it all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I was watching Alfred Hitchcock's film “Lifeboat” the other day. It is about a group of people from a torpedoed freighter during World War 2 trying to survive in a lifeboat. They don't all make it and at one point as they put the body of one of them in the water, one person asks if anyone knows a prayer. I thought one of the character would say the Lord's Prayer but instead someone starts reciting the 23rd Psalm. And it makes sense. That is probably one of the best known passages of scripture.

This upcoming Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the agricultural world of the Bible, kings often thought of themselves as shepherds of the people. So how much more appropriate was it to use the metaphor of shepherd for God. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors for God (father, husband, potter, castle, shield, etc) but shepherd is one to which the writers return again and again. And Psalm 23 is an extended exploration of that metaphor.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” If the Lord is our shepherd, he will provide what we need. Faith is just another word for trust and if we are following God , we have to trust that he will take care of our needs.

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” As the shepherd leads his sheep to meadows of green grass and pools of clean water, so God leads us to to places where we can get refreshed and renewed. Notice it doesn't say that the shepherd pre-chews the grass for the sheep or pours the water down their throats. He leads us to what we need and then it is our responsibility to feed ourselves. Sometimes people expect God to do everything for them or to do it magically.

A flood was coming to this small community. The authorities sent a bus to evacuate people in the area. This one man refused to get on board because he said, “The Lord will take care of me.” So the bus went to get his neighbors. When the flood waters were up to the man's porch, the Coast Guard came by in a boat to rescue him. He refused, saying, “The Lord will take care of me.” The boat took off to find someone else. Finally the floodwaters covered most of his house and the man was standing on the roof. A helicopter flew over his roof and lowered a rope ladder to him. He refused to climb it, saying, “The Lord will take care of me.” The helicopter flew off to save someone else. The floodwaters rose and the man drowned.

When the man got to heaven, he was mad. He goes up to God and says, “Why didn't you take care of me?” And God said, “Whoa! I sent you a bus and a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?”

God provides but he won't necessarily spoonfeed us. A lot of the time he expects us to use the gifts he gives us. And he often works through other people.

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.” I am so impatient to recover that the therapists here have to remind me to take breaks between exercises. They know I need to rest at times. God knows we need to rest and so he actually commanded us to knock off work one day a week. The Sabbath is meant to be a time of rest and refreshment. We are also supposed to spend time with God. And just as hikers use their rest breaks to check their maps and compass and landmarks, we need to use our time with God to check on our direction in life. Are we following him or have we got off track? Have we parted ways with God? Are we heading into situations he wants us to save us from? It doesn't hurt to get reoriented and make sure we are on the right path.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” God doesn't promise us that every day will be sunny. We will go through dark times in our lives. Our options might seem to narrow and the only way out is to go through the constricted, stygian valley, “the dark night of the soul” as some have called it. Again we can trust God to get us through those times. The shepherd's rod was a club he carried in his belt to defend the sheep against predators and thieves. The staff, the shepherd's crook, which is what a bishop's crozier is based on, could also be used as a weapon but in addition it could be used to snag and pull up sheep who had fallen into a crevice. So the psalmist is saying that we can trust God to protect and support and rescue us.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.” Here the image switches from a shepherd and his sheep to a host and his guest. God is a gracious host whose hospitality protects his guests from enemies, who anoints his guest's head with perfumed oil and who is not stingy when it comes to keeping the glass filled. So God doesn't merely give us the bare bones necessities we need to live but provides an abundance of good things.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” If we follow the shepherd, if we stay in the right pathways, then God's goodness and his mercy (or a better translation, his steadfast love) will follow naturally. Following is the key. If you are sick, you need to follow doctor's orders. If you are lost, you need to follow an experienced guide. If you want peace and refreshment and protection and abundance, you follow the Lord. And when you arrive at your destination, you will find it is the house of the Lord, and you are his guest. He will wash your feet, and anoint your head, and spread a table and fill your cup. And he will wipe away any tears you have from the long hard journey of life.

Friday, April 8, 2016

United in Love

I preached this on Thursday April 7 here at the nursing home.

Today we honor Tikhon of Moscow, a man who was at one time the head of the Orthodox Church in America and later the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church during and after the Communist revolution. While in America he reached out to Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and the Greek Orthodox. And that's one reason we honor him. He was a peacemaker as Jesus called for us all to be in the Beatitudes.

You know what all Christians agree on? On the things we say every week in the Creed: that God created everything, that Jesus is his son, who lived as one of us and died for us and rose again, that God leads us through his Holy Spirit, that we constitute his church, that our sins are forgiven, that we shall be resurrected and live forever. All Christians also believe that we find God's Word in the Bible. Where we tend to disagree is on matters of interpretation and emphasis. And I don't want to say those matters are unimportant, but they are not essential. I don't have to understand the internal combustion engine to learn to drive, or the biochemistry of digestion to eat well, or the role of oxytocin in the brain in order to love others. You need to understand just enough to do it and to do it properly.

Remember: Jesus did not say that the world would know that we are his disciples by the fact that we agree on everything, or that we do everything exactly the same. He said the world would know we are his disciples by the love we have for one another. That's a pretty easy thing to remember, though it is very hard to do. Loving imperfect people is challenging. But God does it. And we can, if we rely on the power and wisdom of his Holy Spirit to guide us.

The Bible never says that “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It does say that "God is love.” To be godly, then, is to be loving. And if we are supposed to grow into Christ, we must grow in our ability to love others, no matter how hard. Because in that way we will love one another as he loved us.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

When Faith Dies

My granddaughter saw a man at the Chinese restaurant Big Pine Key and thought it was me. Apparently he looked a bit like me. My daughter-in-law corrected her by showing her a picture of me. My daughter-in-law wasn't fooled for a second by this guy because she knows me. But we have all made similar misidentifications. We see a stranger from the back or from a distance and we think they are someone we know. The minute they turn around or we get closer we realize our mistake.

So we can dismiss any attempts to explain away the resurrection which say the disciples were mistaking someone else for Jesus or that someone was impersonating Jesus. They had lived and traveled with him for 3 years. In Luke we are told they thought he was a ghost, but they recognized who he was. Nor was this an hallucination. When I was in ICU I had hallucinations. They were thoroughly convincing—to me, but not to anyone else. So what are the odds that all the remaining disciples had the same hallucination of the risen Christ? And let's not forget Jesus' brother James, to whom Jesus also appeared according to Paul's account, written decades before the gospels. And why would they lie if Jesus hadn't conquered death but was just a decomposing corpse. What could they possibly gain? So why didn't Thomas, the disciple who wasn't with the others on Easter, believe it when all the others told him Jesus had risen?

I think he was discouraged, like the other disciples had been originally. He had invested a lot of his life and trust in Jesus and the crucifixion had so discredited the idea that Jesus was the Messiah that he didn't dare go down that path again. Not unless it was absolutely true. And that meant he didn't want to just see someone that looked like Jesus, he wanted proof that this was the same man who had died on the cross. He wanted to see the wounds. He wanted to touch the torn holes in the flesh. They couldn't be faked.

And when Thomas did see Jesus, still bearing the marks of his death, he knew that Christ had risen indeed. He also knew that Jesus had to be more than a mere man. He exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Sometimes we experience a catastrophe so devastating that we lose our faith in a loving God. We, like Thomas, give up hope. We demand a lot of proof if we are ever going to believe in and trust God again. God understands that. But we have to do something that Thomas, to his credit, did. We have to go where the people who experience Jesus are. Thomas could have said to the other disciples, “Not only don't I believe he is back but I don't believe you. I don't believe you have experienced the risen Jesus. So goodbye and good riddance!”

But Thomas didn't do that. He went back to that room where the disciples met. He knew them to be good people even if he didn't believe everything they did. And there he encountered the risen Jesus and his own faith was resurrected.

Life is hard. No one knows that better than Jesus. And sometimes our faith can be so battered by life that it seems like the sensible thing is just to let it die. And so we walk away from the very things that can bring it back to life. When the flame of faith goes out we just drop the torch and decide it makes more sense to plunge ahead into the darkness, rather than to go back to where the source of the flame is and get it rekindled. And if you are looking for the God who is love, then you really ought to look among the people who follow the one who loved us enough to die for us and who commanded his followers to “love one another as I have loved you.” In fact this is such a stormy and windy world, we really ought to go to the source often to get our torches reignited--weekly at the very least. Because as Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” (Matt 18:20)