Monday, August 09, 2010

An Alternative Kingdom Vision

An Alternative Kingdom Vision
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Proper 14, Year C
St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church
August 8, 2010

For a good portion of the summer I have found myself immersed in sixteenth-century documents which provide many of the mundane details of worship in her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth’s court. There are battles over music—whether it is appropriate to include instruments like viols and sackbuts on special occasions. There are squabbles over the behavior of the choir boys. And, in particular, there is the give and take regarding who is most appropriate to preach before the Queen during the annual Lenten round of sermons, as her advisers look for those young men who are articulate and promising but who won’t attract the ire of a monarch known for her willingness to call speakers out whom she deemed to be abusing their preaching privileges. But perhaps the question that has dogged me the most as I have tried to stitch together the various fragments of theological, historical, and sociological data is the relationship between this beautiful daily round of worship and the very real problems that dogged the decades of the mid- and later-sixteenth-century Englishman as he sought to eke out an existence in a rather precarious time and place.

For instance, the year 1563 was the worst year of the plague in London with thousands dying in the capital and thousands more throughout the country side. As priests lit the torches that lined the urban squalor to try and burn away the miasma that it was believed caused the sickness, the Chapel Royal continued its regular round of daily prayer with young lads sounding forth in their most beautiful voices the words of the Te Deum or the Sanctus. And while rumors of excommunication swirled throughout the city, the Queen continued on about her regular duties dealing with both domestic and international crises, pausing occasionally for private prayer in her chambers or public prayer with her court. The political climate was rife with bad news, both at home and abroad, and yet people continued to gather to worship and to pray—especially the Crown, as if to suggest that immersing one’s self in worship were, at best, an antidote and, at worst, a panacea to the ugliness of life taking place on the street.

Suffice it to say that I have come to believe that one of the most important roles of Christian worship is to offer us an alternative vision of the Kingdom—perhaps most importantly during those times of deepest and darkest personal or corporate darkness. This extends beyond the typical verbiage we use when talking about whether we were “fed” by a service or whether, as many churches today might put it, we “had our needs met” by a particular Sunday worship service. This way of thinking, while perhaps partially perceptive in terms of what it means for us to be human, actually subjects God to our way of thinking—to our human categories. No, what I am talking about is God’s inviting us into a new and different way of seeing the world—of offering up for us a different language and a different set of lenses for thinking about whose and who we are. And, I would like to suggest that today’s Scripture texts partake of this alternative vision.

In our opening lesson, the problem is one of total disjunction between worship and the hearers’ way of life in the world. Unfortunately, the hyperbolic language used here by the prophet is oftentimes misread out of its historical and cultural context in a very literalistic way that would suggest that worship is somehow unimportant. But we know from the biblical canon that a great deal of time and attention is paid throughout the first Testament to the niceties of the priestly ritual. Anyone who has gotten bogged down in the later chapters of Exodus or the lengthy descriptive sections in Leviticus or Numbers can’t help but wonder why so much time is spent on the description of worship furniture!

No, the problem here is not with the act of worship itself but with its disjuncture from a life of corporate integrity before the Lord God of Israel. The people had come to see worship on Mt. Zion as protection against their enemies—as a sign that God was always on their side. Yet, as Christopher Seitz points out in his article on Isaiah, “Zion is not an inviolable fortress offering sure defense against all foes. Zion is God’s own abode,” (Anchor Bible Dictionary 3: 487). And, as “God’s own abode,” the priestly worship was meant to beckon its hearers to a new way of living, a change in their orientation, not only towards God, but towards their neighbors, as well. That is why the middle section of the opening salvo in this book is a call for the people to not only ceremonially “wash themselves,” but to also “remove the evil of your doings” and to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Instead of living in two different worlds, the people are being called to live one integrated life where what they see, do, and practice on the Temple mount provokes them to a different way of living out their everyday lives.

This vision of faithful living is perhaps best summed up in our second lesson from Hebrews, where faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (1:1). In a recent article in the New York Times, Gary Cutting, who teaches at Notre Dame, points out that many of his students see faith as something of a “trump card”—they view religion as a comfort and believe that having faith means “never having to explain why,” ( But that is most certainly not what the author has in mind here. In fact, the word he uses which gets translated as “assurance” is hypostasis—perhaps one of the most heavily-debated words in the early church during the formulation of its creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries. Philip Hughes writing in his commentary describes this powerful word as “something that underlies visible conditions and guarantees a future possession.” He goes on to contend that “in striking contrast to the man whose values are entirely those of this present world, the Christian is animated by the conviction that it is the very things which are not (yet) seen, those things which he appropriates by faith, that are real and permanent,” (A Commentary on Hebrews, 440-441).

Faith, then, is not really a “trump card,” but something of a second sense which allows us to see and understand the world in a different way than our secular counterparts. F. F. Bruce claims that “physical eyesight produces conviction or evidence of visible things; faith is the organ which enables people to see the invisible order,” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 279). In contrast to our penchant for thinking in terms of “blind faith,” there is actually a strong systemic foundation that underlies the way Christians see the world that should form the basis on which we make choices. When we are called upon to make difficult decisions, we do not do so irrationally—we do so based on a set of foundational principles which underlie our entire orientation towards the world. These principles claim that there is a god and that that which he created is good. They also suggest that this god is not simply a giant clockmaker in the sky but continues to remain intimately involved in the world, calling people into fellowship with God’s self and into fellowship with one another through God’s primary instrument of redemption, the church.

The paradigmatic example which the writer uses here is Abraham whose entire life was built around a set of principles quite different from those of his contemporaries. He stood out not because he made irrational choices, but because he chose to build his life around a set of principles quite countercultural. His eyes, according to the book of Hebrews, were firmly fixed on a heavenly city and, as a result, he found himself something of a wandering nomad without a place of fixed residence and loyalties. In the stories that surround his life, we see him holding attachment to places rather lightly while his attachment to God grows ever stronger.

What animated Abraham was his longing for and commitment to “a better country.” When the author says that “he set out, not knowing where he was going,” he is not describing some character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Instead, he is describing someone whose entire life was centered around a godly vision based on a reality hidden deep within the created order. For Abraham, faith was not a “thing,” a noun; no, for him, faith was a verb, something that demanded action—yielding to critical and somewhat difficult choices, in his everyday life. Yet, in a culture caught up with instant gratification, we are told that he “died in faith without having receiving the promises,” (11:13). His life ended, then, based on this set of principles and beliefs that were yet to come to full fruition.

In Jesus’ commands for preparation in today’s gospel lesson we can hear some of this same desire to attach our lives to something of worth that may yet lie in the future. His command to sell possessions fits with the scriptures from the previous two Sundays which have called upon us to hold our material goods lightly. But today, we are given the further insight that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Luke 12:34). As I turn a year older here quite soon, I have begun to realize just how quickly the sands of time are draining away. We Baby Boomers have this tendency to believe that we will remain forever young, but mortality creeps up on us just as it has on previous generations. And like those previous generations we must begin to ask what kind of legacy we wish to leave behind.

One possibility is the commitment to hedonism and pleasure which I heard voiced last Sunday in an interview with Hugh Hefner, now 84 years of age. Clothed in his signature silk robe and surrounded by Playboy bunnies, he nevertheless is beginning to show his age. An icon to a certain set of presuppositions which challenged our culture a half century ago, he said, “I’d like to be remembered as someone who played an important part in changing the social-sexual values of my time.” And, his dogged pursuit of those values remains his animating purpose in life as strongly at 84 as they did at 34.

I wonder if we, the followers of the one who walked the way of the cross, can be said to have lived our lives with as much singularity of purpose? What vision guides us, not just on those days when the sun shines brightly and all seems well with the world—but on those days when our world seems to be caving in and the corpses line the streets? What I have learned from my studies this summer and over the course of the last decade or so is the need for an alternate vision for God’s people through our worship and through our everyday choices that we make throughout the day. Though we may not be Elizabethans, we, too, are called upon to choose how we will live our lives each and every day. What role will prayer play? How often will we gather together? To what vocation and meaningful work are we called? How will we invest our resources of time, money, and focus? The drip, drip, of time marches on and each day we awaken to the beauty of a new dawn we have less time than we did the day before.

The temptations for conformity to this world and its all-too-apparent values can seem overwhelming. The calling to become, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” has little appeal to most of us. But, as Jesus reminds us: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And, though worship may not be the only place we learn to realign our priorities, it has historically been the time and the space where we experience how God intends to “make right” the world. Every morning at prayer we learn that this begins with confession and repentance and concludes with thanksgiving. Letting these words roll off our tongues and conforming our bodies to these liturgical actions begins to shape us anew into people of faith, people whose hearts are fastened on those things “not seen.”

In his magisterial study, The Cult of the Saints, written two decades ago now, Peter Brown pointed out that the early church posited an entirely different understanding of the city than had the Romans. For the latter, there were tightly drawn parameters that separated men from women, slaves from free, and the living from the dead. But by late antiquity the emerging Christian society had provided access for women to positions of power as benefactors, leaders, and ascetics. In the pilgrimages that were beginning to places like Jerusalem, all classes of people freely mingled, breaking down previous social barriers. And bishops like Ambrose brought the bodies of the saints into the church, literally building places of worship over their bones and forever linking together heaven and earth in a new worldview previously unknown throughout the ancient world.

These Christians challenged the present order based on the hope rooted in their crucified and resurrected Lord. They were unafraid to confront the powers that be with a new vision, a heavenly vision, based on the principles of their Christian hope. Though their lives were lived in very concrete places which called for their very real attention and commitment to ministry, their vocation was predicated on the reality of a heavenly city. “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. . . they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them,” (Hebrews 11: 13, 16). The question is are our eyes fastened on that same city? Are we motivated by an alternative vision different from the one predicated by our culture? May God grant that it would be so and that, we, too, might have the courage to embark on the journey of faith, “not knowing where we are going.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Tuttle-Tomaschke Wedding Homily

Wedding Homily for Patrick Tomaschke and Kristin Tuttle
Song of Songs 2:10-13, 8:6-7; Ephesians 3:14-19; John 17:20-26
St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church
July 31, 2010

Well, here we are at long last. If you’re like me, you are not at all surprised that we have gathered to celebrate the joining together of Patrick and Kristin. About five years ago when they took their first class together with me, they were oftentimes the last two to leave the classroom. Not because they stayed for each other but because they each demonstrated what teachers love to see in their charges—a desire to learn, a willingness to ask questions, a passion to better understand the world and all that is in it. In a class packed with wonderfully bright students, Kristin and Patrick were perhaps the most intense, the most diligent in seeking out answers to their questions. Oftentimes it would be necessary to continue the conversation outside in the shadow of old Hogue Hall or later in my office. In would walk the girl with the nose stud and road-weary running shoes, followed close behind by the rangy young man with curly chestnut hair. They would pepper me with questions, sometimes working as a tag-team. And I began to notice something: if Patrick thought that I was mishandling a question from Kristin, he would quickly come to her defense—much like a knight might have hundreds of years ago for the sake of a damsel in distress. But Kristin was an “equal opportunity employer” and, not to be outdone by her male sidekick, would do the same if she thought I was somehow short-changing Patrick.

These two seemed to be passionate about many of the same things but I’m not sure they quite recognized at the time how that passion would kindle a mutual interest in one another. I oftentimes thought to myself that if they could only turn half of the intensity they brought to the classroom towards something of a mutual understanding they would set off fireworks enough for all of us! So, over the past few years what began as a smoldering fire has emerged into something of a conflagration today and I, for one, feel privileged to simply be here to watch the fireworks go off. And, though I’ve never been much of a prognosticator, I would predict that the energy and passion for life and for service to Christ that the Tuttle-Tomaschkes will bring to the table holds the potential to enlighten and enliven not just their own lives but that of all those who will surround them—those of us standing her this afternoon, included.

But, as good students of my course on Christian Worship, Patrick and Kristin know that today is not really about them at all. In a culture obsessed with all things nuptial, I was once told by a photographer that weddings are all about the bride. To which I was quick to respond, “No, Christian weddings are all about God.” So before you take these time-honored vows today, my dearest Kristin and Patrick, I want to remind you and all of us of why you are here together in a public space dedicated to the worship of God to say these few words.

You are here both in protest and in affirmation. Now, anyone who knows Kristin should not be surprised about the former. For months she has wrestled with the words of the wedding liturgy to make sure that she can fully own them. In a world filled with sappy lyrics about love, today’s texts and service speak of a commitment to lifetime fidelity in the midst of the hard reality of pain, sacrifice, and, ultimately, death. It is no coincidence that both of our New Testament texts which soar so beautifully into rhapsodic prose are couched in the context of suffering. Throughout chapter three of Ephesians the apostle speaks of the difficulties that have dogged his ministry, while Jesus’ so-called “high-priestly” prayer is spoken on the cusp of his arrest, passion, and death. As Christians, we embrace a worldview that is not primarily about a picture-perfect day and tens of thousands of dollars expended on such niceties as the release of pigeons into the air for the cameras.

We know that life is hard and oftentimes filled with uncertainties. In fact, one of the tasks for those of you who are parents and grandparents here today is to remind Patrick and Kristin that life may not go exactly the way they have planned. Your task is to share openly and honestly about the tough times that you have faced—“in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow,” so that they might have a realistic understanding of both the highs and the lows of marriage. In such a way, we stand together in protest against the miasma of “they lived happily ever after” fairy-tale like lies that the culture would have us believe, when all around us are people who are struggling to keep households together in the wake of the late terrible recession.

But we stand here not only in protest, but in affirmation, as well. We affirm with Paul that though the phrase “wedded bliss” may be somewhat oxymoronic, that a life of committed love brought together under the lordship of Christ remains a mystery—something that transcends our human categories. And, while today’s liturgy is littered with legal language with phrases like, “to have and to hold,” and, “till death us do part,” we affirm that for those of us who claim Christ as both Savior and Lord, today’s ceremony extends beyond a legal contract (complete with witnesses) to incorporate the covenantal understanding embedded in the gospel.

At the heart of this covenantal picture stands Christ himself whose self-giving love is meant to be a model for the Tuttle-Tomaschkes as they work out their salvation together. They are not simply embarking on a legalistic journey but they are covenanting that this relationship will be permanent, exclusive, faithful, and long-suffering—the one to the other. Like the apostle in today’s text from Ephesians, they will come to understand and know the love of Christ best as they wrestle and work out what this means in the context of the crucible of their very lives. The longing echoed in today’s reading from the Song of Songs in which the male first beckons to his lover and she then responds, declaring the fierce power of her love, may be what brings them together, but it is Jesus’ prayer, offered not only for his disciples but for the entire church, which will keep them together.

And, can you imagine the passionate exchanges that will take place around their dinner table? If the past few years are any indication of what the future holds, theirs will be household filled with great passion, fierce struggle with the meaning of the Gospel, and an intensity for service that will make of their house a home in which the stranger will be welcomed and the young child embraced—perhaps even a few of their own! And, in so doing, the blessing that we offer here today will find its meaning, not just in their own lives, but in the life of their family, their church, their community, and in the larger Kingdom of God.

Patrick and Kristin, in closing, I want to remind you of our visit to St. Meinrad’s Monastery a few years ago where we spent some time talking together in the cemetery. If you remember, we spoke of the service that demarcates a Benedictine’s final vows during which he gives himself wholeheartedly to the community and lies prostrate over the patch of earth in which he will be buried while the bells symbolically toll out his death. Well, I want you to think of this place and the words you are about to speak to one another in a similar vein. While it is not true that you, individually, will die today, it is true that you take on a new identity this afternoon as husband and wife. You will no longer be simply Kristin or Patrick, but you will be Patrick and Kristin Tuttle-Tomaschke, together. And, just as the monk rises to a new identity and renewed commitment to the community, you two will now have something of a new identity with a renewed commitment to a lifetime together.

Our prayer is that these vows and this lifetime covenant will not only bring love, hope, and peace to you, but to the broken world to which you will give yourselves, as well. God’s blessings on you as you go forth in service to Him. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.