Sunday, June 26, 2011

Jeremiah: On Being an MC of the Cross

"Jeremiah: On Being an MC of the Cross"

Preached at: House for All Sinners and Saints
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Denver, CO
26 June 2011

Jeremiah 28.1-17
Psalm 89
Matthew 12.40-42

Inspired by Wendell Berry's poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (which was read during the service; see video below)

Our Old Testament lesson captures what I think must be history’s first ever recorded rap battle. (Those who love me and care about my future have urged me not to attempt a reenactment for you. Meet me during Open Space – we can “rap battle” each other then). In the face of great turmoil and change, two prophets of the nation of Israel face off, spitting their spin on the present, and the future, of the chosen people of God.

On the first mic, M.C. for the theology of glory, enter Hananiah. Hananiah strikes me as the kind of guy with a nice suit and pretty personality who made his career preaching on the late night Israelite televangelism network. Now, he’s on the payroll of a monarchy that has been reduced to a puppet government by the conquering world empire of Babylon. His charge? Sedate the citizenry by spinning the comforting propaganda of prosperity. I imagine him surrounded by one of those huge hip-hop entourages decked out in golden bling as he promises: “The good old days will be back soon! The exiles will come home! The temple will be grand again! This is the greatest nation on earth! With God on our side (and a coalition of the willing), the evil empire of Baghdad…er, Babylon…will be toppled!”

On the other mic, comes Jeremiah, MC of the Cross, prophet of the living God. Almost single-handedly, this one-man opposition movement has been protesting against the state’s phony optimism. So he comes on stage bearing an oxen yoke on his shoulders, symbolizing the reality of the nation’s current captivity under the Babylonian empire. He also bears an inconvenient truth: That Israel, God’s people, is also in bondage to the slavery of sin. They have pillaged the poor for profit. They have built their beautiful temple on the backs of slaves. They have chosen the cold kiss of a golden calf over the intimate embraces of the God of the Universe. The same God who led them out of slavery in Egypt to be a nation of prophets, priests, and witnesses. In the face of a world blinded by nostalgia for “the way things used to be,” Jeremiah dares to sees things as they really are. Change has come. And its not change we can -or should -believe in.

In this story, despite Jeremiah’s scintillating mix of sarcasm and truth-saying, un-truth appears to take the rap-off. And yet, truth has the last word. Despite having schooled Hananiah, -and despite the pretender's violent temper tantrum -Jeremiah remains ice cold. Looking the pundit straight in the eye, he foretells his doom: “the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.” Peace out Hananiah.

You have made God’s people trust in a lie. Isn’t this how all the forces of sin, death, fear and oppression do their devious, deceitful work? In his efforts to maintain the illusion of control, Hananiah not only avoids the hard truth of the difficult situation of change before him. He also manages to lie about God, and about the quagmire into which God’s people have fallen. And what results from lying about God – from projecting our own disordered, deeply deluded designs and desires upon the divine canvas? Self-deception. Violence. Death. It’s always been like that.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, is willing to speak truthfully about the hard times facing his people. He is able to name the darkness, the tragedy, the pain, the grief, and the loss of his community’s plight. And, ironically, despite coming off as the nay-sayer, Jeremiah is the one who can truly HOPE for restoration, proclaiming, “Amen, may it be so.” Because Jeremiah alone among his people points to a God who is not only against the suffering – but also with His people, in and through the suffering change inevitably brings. It is ONLY because Jeremiah speaks truthfully about himself, truthfully about his people, and truthfully about his God, that he can offer his people an honest word about the mess they have become. And then offer an authentic, hopeful vision of the beauty of a promised resurrection.

It’s not just the pundits and the people in power who excel at the spin. Like Hananiah, we too fall for the lie that we can somehow prevent the discomfort of change by manufacturing our own happiness. I am always amazed at just how hard it is for me to describe and confront honestly situations of change in my life. Just a few weeks ago, when we first arrived in Denver, our lives felt incredibly unstable. The routines into which we had settled during our time in South Carolina had dissipated. Our new house was a mess. The opportunities to build new relationships felt overwhelming. The task of learning to navigate a new world seemed futile. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert during the Exodus, I found myself beginning to wish for the cozy comforts of the familiarity of the familiar. I began to wax nostalgic, longing to return to the good old days. Of slavery. In Egypt.

Until I realized that I wanted to go back to South-freakin’-Carolina instead of being in Denver, at House, now, in the midst of the place to which God has called me. If that’s not a reach of romanticization, I don’t know what is! I think despite our best efforts, we all tend to follow the path of Hananiah. Especially when change also means loss of control and suffering. As theologian Henry Rollins wisely observed, “when the going gets tough, the tough get conservative.”

Its funny how our fear of change can make us into the kind of people who suddenly begin to care about this basically made-up thing, this imaginary golden age, called “the way things used to be.” Israel pines after her stint as slaves under the iron yoke of Pharaoh. Hananiah’s good old days were tarnished by unprecedented injustice and blatant idolatry. Yet, we would rather be slaves to the pain with which we are familiar, than face the pain of the reality of our own brokenness, of our own need to change, for our own good.

The truth is, Israel, and we, her descendants, follow a God who is constantly calling us into the challenge of change. Because while our God loves us and accepts us just as we are, our God cares far too much about us to allow us to remain in a static situation that is death to our souls. The real God, the true and Living God, is not the God who promises to protect and pamper us against the inevitable tragedies of life’s changes. The true and Living God is the one who says, “yes, change is inevitable, and yes, change will suck. But in the midst of that change, I will never leave or forsake you. I will be with you in, through, and after that change. The only way through it is through it. And we’ll journey through it together.”

In the world of our own created happiness, we can do nothing but smile and be fake; we will do violence in trying to preserve our institutions, our illusions, our best moments, our treasured selves, our transient happiness. We will delude ourselves about our own virtues to avoid the harsh reality that some changes have been a far too long time in coming.

In the world of God’s truth, we will face what is real. And this will sometimes – often - include suffering, hardship, change, and yes, even death. But even so, especially so, God promises to be with us, to walk with us, to be present wherever the pursuit of God’s love will lead us. God promises to open up to us the deep mystery of our existence…and he promises to be with us, through every change and every tragedy, no matter how deep the rabbit hole goes.

The real prophets in our lives are those willing to speak the hardest truths with the greatest possible love. They are willing to demolish the idols we enthrone in our hearts when our fear leads us to attempt to create our own happiness and our own future. When they say, “it gets better,” we can believe them because in their ruthless honesty have first admitted, “it gets worse.” They are the ones who, when they speak of a God of resurrection, are able to offer us true hope, and true intimacy with the one who holds the key to experiencing most fully the whole of our blessed, whacked-out existences.

I think that’s why Jesus says in today Gospel that “you will receive a prophet’s reward.” That Greek word for “reward” can mean both “payment,” and also “retribution.” Jesus knows that the true pay-off of pursuing the path of radical authenticity and deep intimacy with God in this life is the harsh wood of the cross. Prophets have always been compensated for their efforts with suffering and death. But in being willing to speak so honestly, Jesus also makes a promise. We will be rewarded. Not just with a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. But with the gift, and the assurance, of the very companionship and blessing of the God whose music improvises resurrection beauty out of the distortion and deception of death and despair.

Jeremiah, like Jesus, points people to real HOPE. Because rather than seeking to mediate a static, distorted, comforting picture of a lie long dead, Jeremiah is compelled to point to the living, active, musical, improvisational God. The God who makes Gospel out of the blues. Who is willing to sing the blues with us, “even unto the end of the age.”

What would a church look like that is unafraid to change? Unafraid to suffer? Unafraid to die? Unafraid to become a NEW CREATION, while still remaining passionately committed to those things which never change – the promises of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the fire of the Holy Spirit?

What might happen at work, in our families, in society, across the world, if we as Christians stopped following the spin of Sin, and began instead to sing with the freedom of the Spirit over the chord changes of the Triune Troubadour?

The hard truth of the matter is - we are going to change. We can either die a lonely, confused, deluded death with Hananiah and the empire for which he fronts. Or we can die the death of the cross, and be changed by that resurrection which makes a mockery of death, which liberates the oppressed, and sets the captives free. We are going to grow either way – we can grow deeper into the entanglement of our own delusions. Or we can grow deeper roots into the radical life-giving love of God, which no suffering, no challenge, and no death, can ever cause to change.

Change came to Israel.
Change will come for the Church
and for each of us.
But change has also come in Jesus Christ,
who never changes in His love,
and His promise of His presence,
with us, His beloved people,
called to be prophets
of a future not of our own making.

(I have to say, I think Asher outdid even Mr. Berry with his reading at HFASS!)

We used the Keb' Mo version during Open Space, which is worlds better. No videos online, however.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Joining the Troupe of Triune Troubadours

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Preached at: House for All Sinners and Saints
Sunday June 19th, 2011

Texts: Genesis 1.1-2.4
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
Matthew 28.16-20

"God is a fugue." - Robert Jenson

One thing you will learn – if after having me for a year, you actually want to keep having vicars – is that seminarians love doctrine. Often, one of the greatest challenges facing a teaching parish like House is to wean seminarians off high-theological speak, and teach us how to get speak about “the real world.” In this sense, Nadia’s kind of screwed me over by inviting me to preach on the ONLY Sunday of the church year devoted to a church DOCTRINE. Thanks.

That being said, who doesn’t love a little doctrine now and then? Its like red velvet cake – delicious on certain occasions, but a death sentence if indulged regularly. Doctrines can help orient us, give us a sense of direction, delineation, even security. Or, they can serve as really easy targets, sure-fire enemies for those of us with a “need to be against.” I’ve found that most people have “doctrines” of one kind or other. If they don’t tell us who we are, they at least help us define who we are not.

I believe that doctrine is passed on for the sole reason of helping us better tell the story of who God is and who we are as God’s people. In this sense, its less a set or rules, and more like...stage directions, or, if you will, like a rhythm section, providing the time and chords over which the people of God are called to improvise and sing the song of the Gospel.

That’s why, in the end, I don’t think its Nadia so much who gave me a raw deal, as the tradition of the church that taught me that Trinity is only a doctrine. Because last time I checked, Trinity is not a neat geometric shape, a perfect triangle or an equation that explains away conundrums. Rather, Trinity is an identity – or, rather, it proclaims the story about who this God is that we claim to be worshipping here. What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the name “Trinity” is a kind of melody that enables us to hear our God as a God of (drama) musicality and song. So that when we encounter the divine music alive and mischievous in the world, we will recognize the tune, feel delight or terror, and if we dare, join in with a dance or a riff of our own. Trinity tells the story of a god who is more like a four-part fugue than a fact or a formula.

I’ve found that meditating on the musicality of the Trinity enables us to encounter a God who seeks communal collaboration in God’s creative endeavors. God desires to be a band, a troupe, more than a diva or a solo act. Today’s texts are like sound stages, on which we can catch glimpses, hear snippets, of the new things this super-group’s been cooking up.

In Genesis, the Triune Troubadour sings creation into being, delighting with sheer wonder at the fact that, again and again, “it was good.” Here we glimpse a Godhead collaborating harmoniously and vivaciously as a community of persons. And the grand finale is the continued sharing of the blessings of the divine life through a charge to humankind to carry on the cultivation of the cosmos – to be not only a cover band, but also co-creators.

Then, in our Gospel, we witness the Risen One, not as Jesus Christ Superstar, but giving over his lead singer’s role to his bandmates. The Church is empowered to “make disciples” – of inviting others into the art and skill of playing the intimately subversive music that wrote the world. And did you notice? “They fell down and worshipped him – but some doubted.” The Triune God revealed in Christ does not discriminate between the believers and the cynics, between Gospel music and the blues. God surprises again and again by creating a symphony out of dischord, by composing the music of salvation out of notes both in and out of tune.

And then, ministering to the broken people of Corinth, St. Paul makes his appeal: “agree with one another!” Paul’s Greek verb here literally means “be the Holy Spirit to one another.” The creative, capricious music of God’s Spirit reaches a climax when we trade in our arms for the common anthem of true community, punctuated by the intimate lyrics of a holy kiss.

Throughout the story which tells the life of Trinity, we see a God not only willing (pause), but practically brimming over with the desire to share the sheer power and delight of Her music with others. This is not God the 1950s Father heading off to work by himself, leaving the wife and kids at home; this is a Father, a Divinity, a Lover, who from the start shares His creative love, His delight, and His power. The results will almost always surprise us – as surprising as the Son laying down his life for sinners. As surprising as a Resurrection, or an outpouring of the Spirit. As spontaneous as a dance.

Justin Nickel (fellow pastor) and I were comparing notes on seeing Mumford and Sons last week. We agreed that the most powerful moment of the show came when the band surprised the enraptured audience by asking for silence. It was awkward. It was difficult. It defied the expectations of the mad dancers and raucous shouters. But as the sweetness of silence flowed across the Fillmore, a soft, gentle, harmonied song could be heard as the band sang, without the aid of microphone or amplifier. All the way in the back, we heard familiar lyrics in a new, intimate way: “you are not alone in this.” And an auditorium filled with thousands of people were drawn into the life of the music in a glorious and hitherto unimagined manner.

Perhaps the best person to talk about the “doctrine” of the Trinity is not a seminarian who has spent three years in the library. Perhaps it is someone who has spent three years listening, in enraptured wonder, to the music the Trinity is. Someone who, in so doing and so delighting, has learned to enjoy and to know personally the intimacy of our lyrical God. Perhaps it is one who has committed him or herself to hearing that music even and especially where it is least expected, and who is willing to follow wherever it may lead.

It all sounds so poetic, so sublime, so egalitarian. Musical doctrine. A God who is a collaborative, creating community. A life of bohemian, artistic discipleship. So its kind of weird that in so many ways, I prefer to remain a seminarian, and not a musician. I still prefer the safety and control of a doctrine to the wild ecstasy of knowing the person this identity names. This God sounds wonderful. But such power – and such intimacy - is also unsettling. Its good fun to talk about, to imagine, being the kind of community where we literally embody the inclusive, improvisational love of the Trinity. But actually becoming that community is not only inconvenient, but also intolerably humbling, and if I’m honest, downright terrifying. After all, do I really want some white guy trying to rap over my perfect fugue? Am I really open to a little bit of country, a dash of punk rock, the unintelligible anomaly of a-tonality? Can I really label my musical tastes the ever-popular “eclectic?”

Moving from a personal “doctrine” of a safe, ideal community and a safe idealized Trinity, into the risky reality of a capricious, collaborative concerto of a God is not only a personal inconvenience. It is also to risk becoming vulnerable. Vulnerable to change, vulnerable to suffering, vulnerable to newness. To my ego being bruised, crushed, and resurrected.
The result may not be the kind of community,
the kind of music,
OR the kind of GOD, we thought we knew.
But the promise is that the power of this music will move us,
and that “it will be good.”
The promise is that Christ,
the One who became inconveniently vulnerable to us
for the sake of making us singers in this song of new creation,
will be singing with us, “even unto the end of the age.”

Friends, we all get tired of improvising and including.
Yet, even when we would rather settle
for a doctrine than a relationship, even when we place limits
on what the musicality of God can achieve,
even when we are simply too tired
or too afraid
to be as vivacious as the endless variations
of God’s ceaseless composition,
even then,
especially then,
the Good News is that, the Holy Trinity,
the eternally self-giving,
wildly dancing communal Godhead,
is making beautiful, glorious music
out of our blue notes
in the key of grace.
The Good News is that, in the end,
it is not our song we sing,
but God’s song,
God’s mission,
God’s triune life,
God’s creation.
That we, doubters, we un-kissable lepers,
we doctrine-addicted concert junkies,
are precisely the players that God desires
for His troupe of Trinitarian troubadours.

The Good News is that we dance with a personal, intimate, ever-loving God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who no doctrine can ever contain.
So accepted,
so incorporated,
so empowered,
and so glorified,
we give delight to our loving Father,
our resurrected Brother,
and our Sister Spirit.
And in so doing,
will draw a desiring world into delighting in the same.
Such is the messy, magnificent music of the real world,
Of the true God,
and of His new creation.
Come, join the dance of Trinity!

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Thank you, gentle readers, for your continued patience. This evening, I was installed as Vicar to the House for All Sinners and Saints, and as we continue to settle into our new place, Casa Karibu Sze-Ming, a missional center in the Cole Neighborhood of Denver, I expect blog flow to resume. Grace and peace!