WHAT WE’VE HEARD ABOUT THE ROAD TO HELL, AND WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WAY OF LIFE

The timing couldn’t be better.  In 1 Kings 3, Solomon ascends Israel’s throne after his father, David.  He goes to worship the Lord and asks for wisdom, for the gift to discern between what is right and what is wrong.

The timing couldn’t be better, for if you think it’s bad now it’s gonna to get worse.  In just a few weeks, it’ll get even noisier.  The Republicans are going to meet in some city and the Democrats in another.  They’ll have a great big rallying cry, and we’ll be overwhelmed with campaign promises, attack ads, and reasons to vilify one and love the other.  It’s going to get worse, much worse. That’s why it’s particularly nice to think about Solomon’s wisdom.  Would that more public servants appeal to God for wisdom.  Would that more who enter the fray of politics pursue humility, grace, and a desire to serve the common good, above all else.  The timing is quite perfect, indeed. 

Let’s look for a moment at Solomon.  He shows wisdom with that whole baby-splitting episode, so good for him.  Yet it should be noted that when he asked for wisdom he was already king, so it’s not like he needed more wealth or power.  And Solomon has an interesting track record as king.  Whereas his father, David, was a charismatic builder – the one who gathered the formerly tribal-minded people into one nation, expanded the kingdom, and was beloved by all, even in spite of his less-than stellar behavior – Solomon didn’t have his father’s grace and statesman’s touch.  Over the course of his rule, Solomon built the grand things David didn’t: that magnificent and costly Temple, for one.  Solomon expanded Israel’s power even more than his father, marrying countless women as part of his international relations with local kings and princes, pursuing wealth and prestige beyond the borders of Israel.  Solomon taxed the people heavily, forced them to work unceasingly, and nearly broke their backs.  By the time Solomon died, the divide and animosity in the kingdom was so great that he was the last monarch of the unified country – thus was Solomon’s inability to remain wise, humble, and gentle.

Even the one who humbly prays for wisdom doesn’t wind up having it.  I don’t mean to say that seeking wisdom is not good practice; rather, it is.  I’m suggesting that that’s not enough.  I suspect that once you enter that world and get seduced by power and privilege and wealth and prestige it’s really hard to look back and remember those other values of humility and grace, the care for the common good and looking out for the little man.  This happened, no doubt, to Solomon as he was entertained in the courts of his day.  This happens in every state capital and in our nation’s capitol, today, as fresh-faced lawmakers, intent on doing good, also get led down a rosy path.  Desire to serve and intent to remain wise is just not enough.

God saw all of this, in time, and God grew frustrated.  God gave us everything – minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve; resources and opportunities and desire; all the right tools and perfect moments to make His kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And we squandered it and messed it up, time and again.  So God grew frustrated, but also remembered He’d never again destroy this creation, hence the rainbow in the clouds.

So God determined to re-write history, and re-order the path of human life.  God did a most unexpected and radical thing, and came upon earth as one of us.

God gathered followers and friends, and one day after they fed thousands of people with just a few loaves He told them about real bread, the bread of life, the bread that keeps on giving.  He told them they needed to eat that bread, and drink the cup of life.  He went on to say that they needed to eat His flesh, and drink His blood.  Some others were standing nearby and they heard Him and thought, “Now what is this craziness?  Not only is that contrary to the Torah, to drink the life-source which is blood, but it’s just downright gross.  What is he talking about?”  To which God responded, looking into the eyes of his followers and friends: “Don’t pay attention to them, to those cynics and doubters.  They don’t understand what I’m talking about because they keep looking beyond themselves to someone else who will fix their problems.  They’ll never get around to looking at God – who is the closest, most intimate one you know and already know, the One who already knows you, from the inside out.  They’ll never get around to looking within, where God is already dwelling.”

And that’s what they remembered, years after He was gone.  They remembered how close they were to Him and how close He was to them; how intimately He knew them.  They knew that they wanted to do nothing more than root their lives in Him, and feed on him and drink from his life so that they may have the only thing worthy of being called real life.

God lived as one of us and became human so that humans can become divine.  God re-oriented the whole of human history and rooted Himself in the world so we would root ourselves in Him, and cease to look beyond or outside or to another for answers again, but within — in that deepest, holiest place where the Kingdom dwells already, made sacred when He became and thus blessed our nature.  That’s the lesson in its fullest truth:  that when God become human, redemption already happened.  And the path to new life is to be rooted in Him, the one who became rooted in our experience, as well.

Now, pause.  And return with me to the world beyond the Body of Christ.

As those Republicans meet in Tampa and while the Democrats meet in Charlotte in the weeks ahead, the danger is that you and I will come to believe their messages – that you and I might start believing, somewhere in our heart, that so-and-so has the right idea, and that good intentions lead to good results and, subsequently, that the opponent is a nasty person with awful, no good ideas that will tear down this nation and everything we value.  And you might not only believe those things but you’ll let it infect your lifestyle and your relationships, and you’ll get opinionated and cranky and stop getting invited to cocktail parties.

Don’t let that happen, to you or your life or your heart or your relationships.  Don’t let that happen for it’s a losing game.  The answers are not outside.  The answers are not in another’s good intentions, and the fault isn’t that other one’s bad intentions.  Rather, root yourself where God chose to be planted – in our very flesh and blood, where there is already the food and drink of real, unending, worthwhile life.  It’s within you already, which is where the promise is already offered … in you.

………………..

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 19 August 2012, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary).  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

THE AKASIE SCREEN – AND, AT LAST, A CONVERSATION

Look, that whole Jay Akasie Wall Street Journal-thing was a screen, an offensive blocking move which freed up others to make more substantive arguments or — sticking with basketball — shots.  And you, church, fell for it!

The thought struck me at lunch the other day with a colleague.  I’m not that interested in people’s conclusions — whether they come out theologically conservative or progressive, whether they vote Republican, Democrat or who cares what.  No, I’m more interested in the methods by which folks arrive at their conclusion; whether she’s aware of the sources; whether he’s checked his assumptions at the door and, at least, is pretty darn clear about the baggage he’s bringing into the conversation.  Part of it, for me, is the happy fruit of ministry formation in an academic divinity school.  

I don’t care about General Convention resolutions or the reasons why breakaway Anglicans are breaking away.  I don’t care when the Wall Street Journal makes mistakes about the Presiding Bishop’s staff or how much money the Bishop of Eastern Swizzlestick spent on wine and fancy dinners.  Nor do I care that the Bishop of the Lower Heartland ate only $5 footlongs from Subway every day of General Convention, and divided them evenly between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

I just don’t care.  I want to know if the church is having a genuine, authentic conversation.  I care whether we’ve been courageous enough to be a community of “inquiring and discerning hearts,” to quote the Prayer Book. 

The short answer is: we haven’t.  In fact, we’ve been downright terrible about having a real conversation, respecting differences enough to listen, being bold in our faith claims to speak of how we know God to be acting in Christ.

And yet – poof! – out of the blue comes a genuine conversation.  Lots of folks missed it because they got all bent out of shape by Jay Akasie’s silly opinion piece, but here is an actual theological conversation, transpiring in the public realm.  How cool!

Kicking it off, on July 14, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  Responding to what he opined has been going on in the Episcopal Church — and, in particular, the 2012 General Convention — Douthat argued that so long as organizations such as the Episcopal Church continue their progressive trends they will only appear to the world as increasingly secular institutions and, in turn, lose members until they ultimately die.  Agree or disagree, I don’t care.  It’s a solid argument.

Of course no card-carrying liberal Christian is going to take that sitting down.  Plenty of snarkyness roiled on social media, but it took Diana Butler Bass’ comprehensive July 15 Huffington Post article to present a compelling counter-argument.  Bass’ “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” maintained that – one – declining church membership is neither a conservative nor liberal issue, everyone’s struggling with loss; and – two – since liberal Christianity had to wrestle with decline for a longer period of time than other Christian traditions, it might hold out promise for the entire bunch, re-invigorating Christianity by returning us all to a balance between orthodox faith and social responsibility.  Bass concluded: “So, Mr. Douthat asks, ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity?”

After that, opening Facebook or Twitter was what I could imagine being in a crowd at a so-called professional wrestling match would feel like — no one was saying much of substance but everyone was making plenty of noise, that’s what it meant to be part of the game in the first place.  Blogs were posted like pamphlets of old, as if the thing spoke for itself and summarized everything:  Diana Butler Bass (yay! … hiss!)  Andrew Douthat / Jay Akasie (boo! … yay!).  I still can’t believe so many bloggers took such enormous time to refute the Akasie claims, one by one, and I thank God there was some humor in some of them, lest we, Episcopalians, be rightfully accused of failing to actually read those parts of the bible about how taking prophetic stances isn’t a good first step to making friends in high places!

Arguments of substance were starting to appear more frequently, though.  Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church, weighed in in response to Akasie’s Wall Street Journal piece, and went beyond the tit-for-tat that dominated the blogosphere.  Like a fast break, Sauls concisely asserted that the Church has been “radically faithful” to scripture, tradition, and reason.  Slam dunk.

Taking on Bass, The Living Church ran a July 16 piece by Thomas Kincaid, asserting that she simply “doesn’t get it.”  Kincaid presented a solidly argued conservative theological criticism of liberal Christianity: it’s about salvation, after all, and what liberal Christianity doesn’t get is that the Savior role has already been taken by one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ.  Like his conclusions or not, Kincaid raises a solid argument, not to mention another point that’s stopped me in my haughty tracks — factoring out immigration from Latin America when determining the numbers of Roman Catholics in this country borders dangerously on racism, if only elitism.

Back to the original players, Ross Douthat blogged a response to Bass on July 25.  Unfortunately, most of Douthat’s “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” is another tit-for-tat, this time quoting whole chunks of Bass’ claim in order to disagree, but he does get around to offering an intriguing counter-argument: Isn’t much of the searching Bass calls “neo-liberalism” happening as (Douthat:) “individuals, rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them”?  So we’re still talking about a decline in religious institutions, and that’s happening at a faster pace in liberal churches than conservative ones.

I want to play coach for a moment, and suggest future moves.  There are several:

One, admit that we are, in fact, talking about the decline, death, and substantial changing of religious institutions, social institutions that are not that old in the first place.  Frankly, this needs to be said — and has been astonishingly mute among neo-liberal voices.  Even our most mission-minded church leaders are still afraid of saying that the conversation we have embarked on will, ultimately, mean the ending of the diocesan/deanery/parochial system.  Say it anyway.

Two, admit that we need to learn from the conservative movement of the 1970’s and 80’s that bypassed denominations and, instead, focused on building a community from motivated individual seekers.  Douthat’s right: we can’t compare liberal and conservative denominations when the dramatic rise in conservative Christianity happened in from dynamic leaders leading much-hyped congregations, not because a denomination said so.  Admit that we liberals / neo-liberals / mainliners / deadliners / whoever we are suck at evangelism, and we’ve got to learn new skills and learn them fast.

But do not admit that we are anything but deeply Christian.  And remind the world that we […if you can’t tell by now, my conclusions line up with a fairly progressive Christian stance] are motivated to make these stands because we spend our days rooted in the tradition, the scriptures, and the gift of reason. 

And stop getting hung up on the non-substantive conclusions — whether they like us, understand us, respect us, or know why our Presiding Bishop carries the stick she carries.  That doesn’t matter.  Engage the deeper, more important conversation about they ways we know God in Christ to be active in this world through the Holy Spirit.  And show how you get there by reading the scriptures, living with the tradition, and responding to ever-opening vistas of grace.  That, I’ll say, is the only conversation that has the power to save people’s souls.