Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Take It and Tweet It:" Keith Anderson on Digital Ministry

It wasn’t quite St. Augustine’s famous “take it and read it” conversion moment in his Confessions. But hearing Rev. Keith Anderson on social media and pastoral practice at the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Theological Convocation was a kind of metanoia for me. Because now I’m officially a believer in the Gospel of “digital ministry.”

Like the erstwhile bishop of Hippo, I’ve long been a skeptic about the salvation promised by the story social media tells. Looking around the conference room at dozens pastors seemingly unable to listen to such a compelling presenter without burying their heads in their iPhones every five minutes only provided grist for the mills. I’ve always felt (feared?) that facebook and friends were peddling gateway drugs, the use of which would precipitate a rapid decline into gnosticism and narcissism.

(Also, I’m insanely jealous that while my friends’ phones can talk to them, half the time, I can barely get the keyboard to text on my now “ancient” En-V3 mobile.)

But just as St. Ambrose unlocked the creative potential of new readings of Scripture for Augustine, Keith presented us with a radically different vision of digital media as vehicle for digital ministry.

Reminding us that “people are not looking for information, but relationship,” and that “your website/sermon blog/facebook profile-you-never-use cannot LOVE somebody,” Keith flipped the script on a broadcast mentality of social media, challenging us to consider the question: “how do we LOVE PEOPLE via social media? How do we extend grace, and share Christ’s GOSPEL through social media?”

Now that’s a query Augustine would relish - challenging disordered desires around our false “enjoyment” of media, towards consideration of the “use” - in love - to which we put it.

And that’s what I took away from Keith’s presentations. Not social media as a way to extend ourselves into broader digital markets or profer the worst projections of our egos.

But digital ministry as a gift and a tool, for extending, in Keith’s words, “spiritual care, formation, prayer, evangelism, and other manifestations of grace into online spaces...where more and more people gather to nurture, explore, and share their faith today.”

As vicar of House for All Sinners and Saints, a community that is heralded as an exemplar of digital ministry, I’m amazed its taken me this long to see the light. Partly, I just needed someone to teach me how to organize my facebook news feed, learn how to tweet, and help me see the difference between wasting time, and truly using it.

HFASS self-identifies as a church comprised largely of “post-modern, urban, young adults” - which means that most of us practically grew up as cyborgs, or, as I learned (making me feel quite old), “digital natives.” So really, the question has never been “if” people congregate in digital spaces. Rather, given the fact of their online location, its “how” grace and the Gospel will find them there.

I think the author of the Confessions would also further delight in the confessional tint of Keith’s teaching. Sharing our own lives, while first taking the time and care to notice the ways in which others are sharing theirs, can be narcissism. But it can also be the catalyst for something incarnational, as Keith noted:

By bringing the fullness of our lives to be bear in ministry and social media, we bear witness to the fullness of life in God. After all, the Real Presence here is God’s, and it is through our real and authentic presence in social media that we most clearly and effectively point to God.

In many ways, social media raises the spectre of the oft-dodged question of the “pastor as exemplar.” In the past, the minister shouldered the impossible burden of serving as pillar of moral virtue for his community. As has tragically been the case, public virtue often masked a plethora of private lusts.

But digital ministry invites pastors to share a wider glimpse of their lives with their parishioners. The onus is not on being a superman. The invitation is to be more fully a human being. And in the process, pastors and lay people alike have the opportunity to show how faith shapes our whole lives - in the community, family, in the study, and not just in places designated as “church.” Pastors are challenged to be, not merely moral, but authentic, asking how our lives and practices, and not merely our words, constitute a witness to the Gospel.

Digital ministry can be demonic. Or, it can be another way people experience the Good News of Immanuel, God with us - through the attentive, loving presence of someone willing to enact Christ’s concrete presence in a disembodied realm.

And that’s really what it came down to in the end, and where it began for me. Digital ministry is a no-strings attached enterprise. “The return on our investment in social media,” Keith proclaimed, “is not to gain new members or pledges; its to set people free in the Gospel. That’s my job as a pastor.”

That’s the voice of the child in the garden, calling, “take it and tweet it.” That’s something worth re-tweeting.

(As part of trying on digital ministry, I hope to blog more about specific practices Keith suggested, as well as to continue to reflect on digital ministry in my own community. You can follow Keith Anderson on twitter at @prkanderson and on his blog.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon: "Jesus Christ: Dumpster Diver, or, The Kingdom of Heaven is Fish Guts"

"Jesus Christ: Dumpster Diver, or, The Kingdom of Heaven is Fish Guts"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Third Sunday After Epiphany
22 January 2012

Texts: Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Psalm 65.5-12
1 Corinthians 7.29-31
Mark 1.14-20


-In today's Gospel, Jesus has his work cut out for him as he officially begins his ministry. St. Mark drops him smack in the middle of all out spiritual warfare. Jesus has just returned from being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. His cousin John is on death row after crossing corrupt King Herod. Demoniacs, disease, and disgruntled religious leaders loom on the horizon. Into such chaos, Christ dares to speak words of light and new creation, proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

-And then, as his first act as Messiah, he calls…Simon Peter. And his fishermen friends. Which, by the way, I’m pretty sure was a folk group in the 1960s.

-Now look, the guy’s the Son of God. Who am I to question his methods. Yet, faced with the full forces of shadow and darkness, you’d think he could do better. Recruit some of those guerilla zealots from the Galilean hillside. Summon legions of angels. Beam in advanced technology from the future. At least hire some ninjas or wizards.

-And then there’s Jesus’ stump speech. “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of people!” OK, look. I love fishing as much as the next guy. But if you’re like me, wouldn’t you rather have the Savior do a little bit more…saving? Couldn’t he have said, “I’ll make you investment bankers of people,” or, “alt-country rock stars of people,” or even, “safe, secure, trouble-free, and ultimately-fulfilled for people?” You know, promises more likely to win over the hearts and minds of the civilians?

-But of course, this is Jesus we’re talking about. And so, instead of hiring fresh young ivy league grads to staff his kingdom campaign, he goes with a bunch of half-naked peasants standing knee-deep in water, seaweed tangled in their beards, reeking from the fish guts smeared on their brine-encrusted hands. Can’t you just hear Satan shaking in his little red boots? I’m sure the people of Galilee saw them and just sadly shook their heads. “What a stench,” I can hear them say. “And what a waste.”

-I can imagine the odiferousness of Jesus’ new community quite vividly, because, as many of you know, I spend a lot of my free time in dumpsters. In fact, as a dumpster diver, I like to think of those fishermen as kindred spirits. We both work all night to find food in the depths of dark, unsavory places. We’re not particularly liked by the cleaner element of society. And then, of course, there’s the smell.

-But like Jesus’ calling of fishermen, dumpster diving also brings to the surface a dark truth about the tyranny of perfectionism that oppresses so many in our opulent society. See, Americans throw out over 90 billion tons of food a year. That’s enough to fill enough boxcars to reach from L.A. to New York. And back again. We trash over half of what we produce, even as we grow fatter and the rest of the world thinner. I rejoice when I find a case of 599 perfectly good grass-fed free-range eggs that were thrown out because of a single broken shell. This provision feeds my family and five housemates, and there’s plenty left over to share with our neighborhood food bank and others who help feed the hungry.

-But I also lament. Because this much food does not need to be thrown away. While some of that food really has gone bad, in the majority of cases, it’s tossed because of a harmless blemish, an arbitrary sell-by date, or some other failure to live up to the ideal of perfection we think we deserve as citizens of a prosperous nation.

-Look, I’m by no means advocating that you all go out and eat trash. After all, it’s an acquired taste. But whether its unsavory food or unsavory fisher folk, we live in a culture of sin and death that claims to cherish the quirky and the quotidian, even while it tells us that true value, worth, and effectiveness are tied to prettiness, power, prestige, perfection. And discreetly asks us to toss out anything – or anyone – that doesn’t measure up to our idolatrous ideals.

-And that’s how Satan tries to win the war. By dangling the impossible ideal of perfection ever before our eyes. By selling the idea that to be a useful to the kingdom, you have to be proper, prosperous, professional – or, for that matter, become a professional, a pastor or a professor or some other respectable form of mental illness. As with our food, our lives are bombarded with the claim that we need to meet the sell-by date of our gifts and talents. All the while, we are simultaneously crippled by the false promise that what we need is always in the future, always somewhere else, if we only work hard enough or become perfect enough to deserve it. In the eyes of the world, the kingdom is never near - or never deigns to come near such messiness

-I wonder how many dreams and how many potential ministries we have all thrown away because they have failed to meet these satanic standards.

-I wonder how many of us have thrown our selves away because, whether we are prosperous or impoverished, we feel our lives are a waste.

-I wonder how many other people we have disregarded and discarded because, deceived by death, we’ve refused to acknowledge the value of their lives.

-I wonder how long a boxcar train all these would make. How many dumpsters they would fill.

-But again, this is Jesus we’re talking about. And this Jesus is the one who gazes upon the fisher folk of the world and sees the kingdom coming near. This Jesus not only embraces the stinking, fish-gut covered flesh of the forgotten and the filthy. He also goes so far as to clothe himself in that very flesh – blood, guts, odors and all! And in doing so, brings the kingdom near to us by his very presence as Immanuel, God with us. This Jesus is the Incarnate God who delights in diving head-first into the deepest dumpsters of the world’s wastefulness, because this Jesus seeks, not perfection, but a new community, and the restoration of all created things.

-This Jesus does not say, “become something else, and then you can do ministry with me.” No, this Jesus says, “follow me, and fish for people.” He says, “follow me, and become teachers – for people. Become lawyers, business people, social workers, musicians, artists, designer, dumpster divers, parents – all for people. Heck, be unemployed for people!” But most importantly, he says, “follow me, become more deeply who you are, and be the good creation I made and delight in – for people!” It doesn’t matter what your vocation may be. Even time spent not knowing your vocation is not wasted. Nor is time spent questioning, doubting, or hurting. What matters is that Christ sees you, looks upon you with a piercing gaze, and calls us to be, one and all, ministers of the Gospel, and servants of one another. Perfection’s not mentioned here. Just command and promise.

-Now, we don’t need new atheists or a theology degree to know that God’s history of working with people is far from, well, perfect. Christ called Peter, knowing full well that he would deny him three times. Christ built the kingdom, not on ideals, but on idolatrous human beings who fight over power, divide into denominations, kill heretics, exclude outsiders, and generally do everything in their power to waste the good gifts of community and vocation we’ve been given. If there’s a candidate for landfill status, it’s the church.

-But while the church may abandon Christ, Christ never abandons the church. Rather, he continually calls us to be a people who, having been reclaimed and re-made from the refuse, look on one another and the world as Christ does. Seeking, not perfection, but possibility. Wasting nothing, blessing everything. Diving into the depths of one another’s lives in order to serve one another, all the while building each other up in our vocations to be fishers of people, and followers of the one who first dove, from the heights of the cross, into the hellish dumpsters of our sin and our death, catching us in the net of his grace and his love. When we receive the Eucharist, we are salvaged from selfishness. When we embrace one another with a sign of peace, we are living reminders for one another that the kingdom has come near, and that there is a place in that kingdom for us all.

-There is no waste in the kingdom of God, and Christ throws nothing away in the new creation. Your life is not a waste in his eyes. You are held in the powerful gaze of Jesus, and his call seeks nothing less than the transfiguration of our entire lives. Christ does not promise power, prestige, or prosperity. But he has already given to us the perfection that is the freedom of grace to live our lives for others in the kingdom of Love.

-Christ the dumpster diver defeats the powers of darkness, not with angelic armies clad in pristine white, but by restoring humanity’s place in the creation. By making a place for fisher folk – stench, fish guts, and all. By making a place for you. That’s the kingdom of God, and it has come near, here in this place, and in all places. Hear the promise. Take the plunge. Dive on in.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sermon: Holy Crap, or, How the Glory Finds Us

"Holy Crap, or, How the Glory Finds Us"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Second Sunday of Christmas
1 January 2012

Texts: Isaiah 61.10-62.3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4.4-7
Luke 2.22-40

"Someday, we'll fall down and weep, and we'll understand it all. All things." - Mr. O'Brien in The Tree of Life

-An Entry from the Journal of Joseph, husband of Mary, father of Jesus:

-“Holy Crap. And I’m not just referring to what exploded from the rear end of my son, who is God Incarnate. OK, so it was kind of fun at first. Running in after every diaper change to tell Mary, ‘guess what? I just wiped God’s bum!’ She’d give me that look like, ‘I love you, but you’re a complete idiot.’ Absolutely true, but it got old fast. Still, a little humor can’t hurt when you’re trying to raise any kid – let alone the freaking Creator!

-Because man, no one told me it would be this much work. As I swaddle the little guy each night, I think often of how the prophet Isaiah said he would “clothe us in garments of salvation.” No one mentioned he would also puke all over our garments! And whoever wrote that song “Away in a Manger” with that line “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?” Guys’ a complete liar, and the bags under my eyes prove it. Oh, and that part in the Gospel of Luke that says that Mary and I never, you know, had relations until after the child was born? Yeah, still waiting for that to come true.

-Don’t get me wrong. I love the boy. And as much as it’s utterly screwed up my life, I have to say, I wouldn’t trade this for the world. But you know, I thought being the father of the Messiah would be more…glorious. Because after the shepherds and the wise dudes and the angels, it’s back to the same dead-end town, the same dead-end job, and the same dead-end people…

-Crap. Again. Literally. Gotta go. Joe.”

-OK, so maybe that’s not exactly what Joseph said. But even if you’re not a parent, maybe you share some of his sentiments. After all, this is the week after Christmas. The time when we’re almost obligated to play the post-holiday blues as the celebrations wind down, as the post-New Year’s hangover kicks in, and we go back to the same old mundane life the advertisements promised to help us escape. It’s like the Zen master said, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” And the laundry’s still a chore.

-If you’re like me, then this return to ordinariness feels unacceptable. We were promised peace on earth, good will towards all! Who pulled the plug? And what’s with today’s Gospel, a story of two very elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who spend their whole life…waiting? Didn’t we just finish an entire season of waiting? Are the people who select the weekly lectionary texts playing some sort of cruel prank on us?

-I hate waiting, and I hate not having, and I hate the messiness and monotony of the mundane. After tasting something transcendent, I want something more. And I want it NOW. And so, like a good American shaped by the economy of the Protestant work ethic, I try to make it happen myself. I find carrots to chase, ladders to climb, quests to pursue, things to buy. I set goals and make promises to myself and others. I make absurdly unrealistic New Year’s Resolutions. Anything to hold on to that feeling of gloriousness.

-Problem is, that sounds like this thing Martin Luther called a “theology of glory.” Such a theology, which we all excel at, tells us that the glory is always somewhere else. In a golden age past. In an idealized future. Anywhere except here. And in order to get to that glory, we need to spend our lives trying to work our way towards it. Trying to be good enough to deserve it. Trying to take matters into our own hands. The theology of glory always sounds like this: “If I could only be or do or have X, then…”

-Just this morning at the breakfast table, my mind was percolating about possibilities. See, this New Year’s is bittersweet for me. While it marks six months of serving at HFASS, it also marks six months until internship is over. Six months until it’s time to leave again. Six months until let down. My response? Ponder ways to prolong the imagined perfection! DO something or FIND some way to engineer the future in my family’s favor.

-My reverie was broken by a loud “Papa!” from Abby. I managed a stammer before Leah said, “Matthew, she’s asked you the same question three times already!” I felt like the father in the film The Tree of Life, who, in a moment of brokenness, tells his son, “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us: trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” Playing the glory game, I ignored the glory prattling on right in front of me. I too am a foolish man. I too live in the shame of sin. That’s where the theology of glory will always lead.

-But see, I wonder if that’s why today’s Gospel is such Good News. Like all good Jews, Mary and Joseph do the ordinary, expected thing. They take their son to be circumcised in the temple. Nothing special, right? But when they arrive, they are approached by two strange old people who, led by the Holy Spirit, remind them, and us, of the glory asleep in their arms. Simeon bursts into song, proclaiming, “Finally! After a lifetime of waiting, I’m seeing with my own eyes God’s promises fulfilled! And the light of this salvation is the glory of us all! It’s right here, this little boy, here for us!”

-In God’s way of doing things, we do not find glory; instead, glory has this surprising knack for finding us. And see, this glory, this grace, seeks us, not in some ideal realm of past or future, but here and now, in the midst of the ordinary, the routine, the messy, broken, every day fleshiness of our mundane existences. Christ’s Incarnation short-circuits our systems of seeking after glory, because in that very Incarnation, that glory is revealed as a gift that’s always already been given to us. That’s always already ours!

-Just listen to the words of Isaiah: “he has clothed me in garments of salvation, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, as a bride adorns herself with jewels…and you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord!’ Jesus does not merely stop over to save us, and then leave us to fend for ourselves. By his Incarnation, by sharing our human flesh and our human fluids and our human journey of growing and living and dying, Christ also transfigures all of life. Jesus remains with us, joins His life to our own, clothes us in His glory, and remains with us, making beauty in the midst of ugliness, splendor out of suffering, saints out of sinners.

-Grace does not only redeem nature; it transfigures it. All of it.

-And see, I think this is exactly why Luther once summed up the Gospel as the fact that “God shits.” Because the shitting God is the only God who dares get messy enough to save us. Who loves us enough to sink deeply into the mire of our convoluted strivings after glory. Who deigns to touch our very flesh and make it His own. As a different Simeon, Symeon the New Theologian once said, “I move my hand, and it is the whole Christ who is my hand…I move my foot, and it shines like He does himself!”

-And, just as Simeon and Anna waited for Christ to find them in the temple, so in Christ, we also are provided places where grace finds us. In ordinary bread and wine, Christ comes to us, clothing us in salvation, forgiving our sins, building us up in our ordinariness, and sharing His very self. And just as Mary and Joseph experienced their child anew through the songs of Simeon and Anna, so we also are given a community – this community! – where we hear the Gospel of the Incarnate and Crucified Christ proclaimed. Where we can proclaim it to one another. Where, when we touch one another’s hands in offering the peace of Christ, we also experience His embodied presence. In Word, Sacrament, and community, God’s glory comes to find us. This is God’s glory, all around us, in this moment, here and now. Here in this place, where we can stop seeking, where grace finds us, we are God’s body, hidden under ordinary, broken, messy people, It is here, waiting together in song and symbol, that we are fashioned into a crown of beauty, for the sake of a world crowned in thorns.

-An Entry from the Journal of Joseph: “Just got back from Jesus’ dedication in the temple. Met some trippy old troubador types. Simply by his coming near to them, their faces seem ablaze with light, as if set on fire. He seems to make everything around him more beautiful. Was amazed. Wonder what I’m missing. Maybe the glory isn’t in angels, or in wise men, or even in the temple. Maybe he’s been the glory all along. Maybe it’s already mine. Something to ponder the next time I wipe the bum of God…”