Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Conversion

This sermon was given by Micah Fellow Zach Maher at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, May 3, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

As someone relatively new to the Episcopal Church, I’ve noticed a whole new set of comfort levels with different topics. One topic that strikes me as taboo is conversion.  If mentioned at all, it would be in a sentence like, “We’re not trying to convert people.”

This Episcopalian hesitance makes sense to me.  There are many reasons to be concerned about the concept of conversion.  Many (if not most) people feel some sense of disrespect, particularly for their own religious experience, when someone “tries to convert them.”  And when religion gets tied to power, conversion can become even more problematic, exemplified most disturbingly by historical events like the Spanish Inquisition.

And yet we live in a world in desperate need of conversion – of people opening themselves to be changed by God and by other people.  We see this in the barrage of news accounts of black men being wrongfully treated, even killed, by police.  We see this in all the systemic abuses where individuals and companies disregard the human dignity of their workers and the fragility of our environment.  And particularly at Harvard, we can see this in the pursuit of high-status careers above all else.  The list goes on, and I’m sure you can think of countless problems that matter to you and could be fixed – or at least improved – if people changed their hearts, minds, and lives.

Conversion, you see, is about turning to God.  In fact, the Greek word that gets translated convert means something like “to turn.”  Our first reading is one of the many fantastical conversion stories in the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church and the early spread of the Good News.  An Ethiopian eunuch, curious about the Jewish scripture, asks Philip to explain a passage from Isaiah that Christians understand to be about Jesus.  Very little of their conversation is presented to us, but we know that by the end of it, the eunuch asks to be baptized, a marker of conversion to this new Way of following Jesus.

It can be tempting to see ourselves in Philip in this story.  We’re the ones proclaiming Good News to those who want to listen.  But I see even more power in viewing ourselves as the eunuch in this passage.  The eunuch invites a total stranger in the middle of the desert to shed light on a confusing passage.  He has no reason to expect this person to be responsive to him; indeed he was reading a Jewish text, and the Torah forbids eunuchs from entering the Jewish assembly.  

Not only does the eunuch openly invite this potentially judgmental stranger to speak into his life, he responds quite suddenly with his desire to be baptized.  If I were in his shoes, I can’t imagine making a life-changing decision so quickly.  I myself was baptized three years after a profession of faith.  As an instution, the church often puts up some red tape before baptism, usually a class and some meetings with a priest. 

In fact, the early church felt some need for pushback, too.  If you were to look at this passage in most Bibles, you’d notice that there isn’t a verse 37.  Verse 36 is where the eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In this missing verse 37,  Philip adds a qualifier: "And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And [the eunuch] replied, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"  This missing verse isn’t missing at all.  It wasn’t in the original version of Acts, but was added later, assigned a verse number, then later discovered to be inauthentic. Whoever added this qualifier to Acts wanted to apply a little pressure on the brakes in this conversion story.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I do think life changing decisions should be preceded by a great deal of thought.  And we aren’t privy neither to the process that led the eunuch to search for God in the Jewish scriptures nor to most of the conversation between the eunuch and Philip.  Because that’s not what’s important in the telling of this story.

Rather, the lesson here lies in the eunuch’s openness to quickly respond to this new experience and new information – in a word, his openness to convert.  That kind of change is really hard.  It pushes against our cultural value of “sticking to your guns.”  It challenges our pride, our desire to have already had everything figured out.  Political science researchers have even discovered a “backfire effect”: when we encounter facts that contradict our opinions, we actually become more convinced of our initial opinion.  We want to be people who don’t need conversion, and we’re wired to retreat further and further into a false sense of righteousness just to avoid letting ourselves see otherwise.

And yet this kind of change can happen.  We see it in the story of Philip and the Eunuch, as well as the conversion story of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus,  which immediately follows.  And we can see it today.  Last week’s episode of This American Life centered on the theme of people changing their mind.  They tell a story of a group of canvassers in California trying to change people’s mind to become in favor of same-sex marriage.  The canvasser, a gay man named Richard, invites a voter against same-sex marriage to talk about his experiences around the issue, and when invited, shares his own story.  By the end of the encounter, the voter changes his mind to be strongly in favor simply through the power of an open conversation.  While this episode focused on conversions from conservative to liberal political views, we would entirely miss the point if we don't stay open to conversions in other political directions and other areas of life.

When I think about all the times in my life where, looking back, I was wrong or biased in ways I didn’t even realize, I can’t help but question how I am now.  There must be areas of my life where I need to draw more closely to God and God’s vision for the world. And I hope that someone allows me to see those areas and helps me to convert.

As Brother Curtis of SSJE puts it, a conversion experience is “not an experience of a lifetime; it is an experience of how to live life all the time … Conversion is about our life-long turning and returning to Christ Jesus for his cues and for his power as we navigate life.”  Today’s Gospel passage points to the pruning that Br. Curtis is talking about. Jesus says: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

Just as moments of conversion often prove difficult for us, the process of pruning would be a hard one for the plant.  And yet, this is just what the plant needs. Br. Curtis puts it: “Unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season.” 

God uses this ongoing conversion process to make us who we were created to be, one conversion at a time  On an individual level, this can mean many different things – switching from resentment from forgiveness, switching from viewing rivals as competition to companions, owning up to implicit racism and sexism that very few of us avoid internalizing to some degree – and maybe even coming to new understandings of God.

And Jesus isn’t just talking to each individual branch; he’s talking to the whole plant.  As a church, we are a community being pruned, being converted as we listen to the experiences of other people and other communities with humility.  I see that happening a whole lot in the Episcopal Church, which has been experiencing an identity shift from a community of the rich, white, and powerful, to an advocating voice for including the marginalized in leadership.  Just yesterday, for example, I attended a confirmation service with Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican communion. As people of conversion, we can continue to ask: whose voice haven’t we heard?  What pruning have we avoided?  It’s the people and communities who we’ve learned to dismiss who are best equipped to convert us through their stories.     

And when we come in with the eunuch’s attitude of openness for conversion, then we can be ready to play the role of Philip– or the vinegrower, facilitating moments of conversion for others.  After all, this is Easter season, the time we celebrate rebirth as a church.  What is to prevent us from being baptized?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Good Shepherd?

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, April 26, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.


This Sunday is, for whatever reason, a day I look forward to more than almost any other Sunday in our church year. Something about the imagery of shepherds and sheep is incredibly attractive. Normally, I’d hesitate to project this onto anyone else, but then I read the following story, from a man who lives in the English Lake District:  
I'm not really an “early-adopter.” In fact, I'm the exact opposite. I'm a Luddite and a shepherd. Our shepherding work in the English Lake District is all about continuity and being part of a living cultural tradition that stretches back into the depths of time. Our work is often little changed from the way things were done when the Vikings first settled these valleys. Even our dialect is peppered with Norse words…I am, in short, about as unlikely to get excited by something like Twitter as anyone alive….So I was a little behind the curve on getting an iPhone, and accepted it reluctantly as a free “upgrade” when my perfectly fine old mobile died after years of good service…Whatever I wanted to happen, I suddenly had a camera and Twitter app in my pocket whilst I worked. And though it took me a while to realize it, I had the tools to connect to thousands of people around the world. I could now defend the old in my own quirky and probably misguided way. I first tweeted as an experiment in whether anyone might be interested (some friends told me it would be popular and I thought they were crazy). I’d just helped a ewe to lamb on a snowy morning and took a quick photo of the newborn lambs and posted it on Twitter. By nightfall we had something like 200 followers. My wife heard the phone pinging, “What the freaking [heck!] is going on with your phone?”

What is it with us about sheep and shepherds? How on earth has self-proclaimed Luddite and late adopter @herdyshepherd1 ended up with 59,400 Twitter followers in the last three years? Why do so many of our grandparents have framed needlepoint versions of Psalm 23 posted on their walls? Why on earth is this my favorite Sunday?

I think there are a few reasons. For starters: Sheep are really cute. You don’t get 60,000 followers on Twitter by tweeting pictures of an ugly animal. Nobody makes stuffed animals of the naked mole rat and gives them to their children. As anyone who’s ever hugged a sheep when it’s about to be shorn—in other words, Alice—will tell you, a sheep is about a foot and a half of soft, springy wool on either side of a one-foot torso. There is no “Bah, bah, black bull.” This is, of course, the way people sometimes experience this Good Shepherd Sunday: a day of cozy and comforting barnyard imagery. It is. And it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing about these texts. It’s not the only reason we should love them.

Another part of Herdy Shepherd’s popularity, at least the way he tells it, is that sheep imagery lets us participate in an ancient part of our life and our culture from which almost all of us are completely disconnected. And the metaphor of sheep and shepherds really is ancient.
Shepherd imagery was as pervasive in the ancient Mediterranean as, well, being a shepherd. We particularly see the image of the king as a shepherd. We know this, of course, from the story of King David, the shepherd boy who defeats Goliath and later “shepherds” the people of Israel to unity and greatness. But it’s everywhere. Homer’s Iliad has about a dozen references to kings “shepherding” their people, and the first recorded references to kings as shepherds are about as old as the first recorded writings we have of any kind, some Akkadian tablets from around 2500 BC. The Israelites, of course, placed God as a higher shepherd, above any human king: “The Lord” in “The Lord is my shepherd” is a conventional way of translating the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, which Jews don’t traditionally pronounce. “YHWH is my shepherd,” not the King. God or a king in this role is someone who guides and leads the people, correcting them when they stray but also comforting and tending to them when they are wounded. And so we apply this name to other sorts of leaders who do the same thing: “pastor,” you may know, is just the Latin word for “shepherd.”

There’s a certain sense of comfort and security in seeing a leader as a shepherd. It means there’s someone greater and wiser than myself who is guiding our whole flock and caring for us. The best leader, one can easily imagine, is just like a shepherd: she wants the best for the sheep, and she knows better than they do what’s good for them. She can lead them and guide them, and is able to comfort and tend to them in ways they cannot comfort and tend to themselves or one another, even if they cannot understand or even sense the care being given to them.


For me, ultimately, I think the reason this is my favorite Sunday is pretty simple. Look at the icon of the Good Shepherd that I put on the front of the bulletin. This is the only icon I own myself. It’s associated with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which we find in Matthew and Luke: “Which one of you,” says Jesus, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:4–6 NRSV)

Look into the eyes of that sheep. I don’t know how well it came out in print, but that sheep is pooped. That sheep is beat. That sheep has wandered far away from its flock, and it is lonely and it is tired and it is scared. And that shepherd comes and picks it up and bears it like it’s no burden at all. I’ve felt like that sheep. I suspect many of you have felt like that sheep. And the notion that Jesus is a shepherd who will come and bear that exhaustion and that pain, a shepherd on whose shoulders I can rest, has been an immense comfort to me.


I think sometimes some of us are so accustomed to biblical imagery that we need to be reminded to look at it with fresh eyes. I want to make two points about God, our Good Shepherd.

First: The Lord our Shepherd is one who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. What better God for Harvard? I know it’s a busy time, and I know you’re busy people. But as a friend and shepherd’s deputy I have a request for you: some time during reading period, or on the last day of class, or after your last exam, on a beautiful spring day when the sun is there to drive out all darkness go down to the still waters of the Charles River, lie down in that green grass beside it. Take a friend or two or a picnic or a book, something to eat and something to drink, and restore your soul. And if anyone asks you why, just tell them: God is making you do it. As an alumnus of this wonderful, venerable institution I can say to you that three of my five best memories of Harvard consist of doing exactly that, sitting by the river and resting. Thanks be to God.


My second point: Jesus doesn’t just say he’s a shepherd. He says he’s The Good Shepherd. And what does that mean? The good shepherd, he says, lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand sees the wolf coming and runs away, saving himself and sacrificing the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life defending them. The good shepherd leaves behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one who has wandered. The good shepherd lays out a delectable spread for the sheep, even though enemies all around are coming to beat the sheep up and steal its lunch money. Think about that. Think about it not as a metaphor, not as something you might have heard since you were a little kid in Sunday School, but really think about it.

I joked at our Bible Study on Tuesday that I don’t know where Jesus learned shepherding, but it sure wasn’t at Harvard Shepherding School. I mean, what kind of ridiculous business plan is that? What principle of animal husbandry says, “Yep, if wolves come, you just, uh, die. Yep, lay down your life for the sheep.” Sheep are sheep. People are people. Shepherding is a livelihood. If the owner of the sheep can’t fight off the wolves, he should run away and save himself! It’s unfortunate. It’s a mishap. It might even count as a calamity. But it’s not worth dying for. You can buy more sheep! And you sure shouldn’t risk 99 percent of you wealth in sheep to go find one that’s gone astray. This, I have to think, is ironic advice to people who are very familiar with the reality of what it means to be a good shepherd in this world. It doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t make any sense at all.

And that is the Good News. Sheep are sheep. People are people. God is God. Humans are humans. The shepherd is incomparably more valuable than the sheep, and yet he lays down his life to defend them. This is not a decision driven by economic calculation. This is a decision of love.
God loves you. God is unreasonably, outrageously, irrationally in love with you.


Year after year our lectionary cycle pops out two stories in the Easter Season: Doubting Thomas and the Good Shepherd. And why not? Aren’t those at the heart of the Christian faith? Despite all our failings, all our doubts, all our inadequacies, all our meanness and wrongdoing, all our woundedness and brokenness, all our inability in our sheep-sized brains to understand God’s vast love, in the midst of and because of all these things God loves us. In the words of my friend Brother Curtis Almquist, “God loves you. God wants to spend eternity with you. You make God’s day.”

What makes that one sheep so important that the shepherd should leave behind the ninety-nine others to go and save it? What makes that one flock so valuable that the shepherd should lay down his life to defend it? What makes that sheep worthy of a table prepared in the presence of its enemies, of a cup that overfloweth and spills wine out onto the ground? What makes the sheep worthy of the shepherd’s irrational, superabundant love?

Absolutely nothing. There is nothing in the world you could ever do that would earn the right to such love. And so there is nothing in the world that you ever need to do to earn that love. God is going to love you beyond your ability to comprehend it, “for,” as the hymn goes, “the love of God is wider than the measure of the mind.” And we are worthy of that love, each and every one of us. 

All the rest of Christian thought, I think, is just a series of footnotes to that. All the rest of theology, Christology, and eschatology; of ecclesiology, missiology, and homiletic anesthesiology, is a catalog of different responses to the question "God is love; What are you going do about it?" God is foolishly in love with you. What are you going to do about it? God loves you. And the person next to you. And the wolves, and the thieves, and the enemies. The martyrs and their murderers alike. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t want them to change; God wants all of us to change, to grow into God’s vision for us. But like a faithful parent God loves us, each and every one, in the midst of it. What are you going to do about it? Can you give yourself the permission to be loved and to love yourself? To love your neighbor as yourself? To love your enemies, internal and external, as yourself?

As many or maybe all of you know, my time as part of this community is finally, belatedly coming to an end. This is sort of my farewell sermon for the year. In August, Alice and I will be moving to New Haven and I’ll be starting at Yale Divinity School. Six years into what I thought would be a four-year Harvard affiliation, I’m finally moving on. I’m very excited about this, and I’m very sad to be leaving this place, this community, and all of you. I’ve known some of you for three years and more. I’ve known some of you for not even nine months. This year feels like it’s flown by, and yet it feels like I’ve known some of you for a long, long time. 

We are unlike an ordinary parish community, where people might stay for decades, even their whole lives, where they might raise children and grandchildren together. Each one of us at some point will graduate and will leave this community behind. And that’s a good thing. Although parting is difficult, it’s a part of what we all do here. We are all sheep that “do not belong to this fold.” Our Shepherd will call us away to other flocks, and yet one day we will be brought together again,
“So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Foolishness

A Homily for Wednesday in Holy Week
Memorial Church, Harvard University – April 1, 2015
The Reverend Luther Zeigler

“Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”  (1 Cor. 3:18-19)

Happy April Fool’s Day!  Some might think it incongruous that April Fool’s Day should fall smack dab in the middle of Holy Week this year.  Holy Week, after all, is a solemn time as we re-live the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and accompany him on the painful journey to the Cross.  The truth, however, is that “foolishness” is very much at the heart of Christian living.

This year during Lent I have been reading Michael Higgins’ biography of the late Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen, as you may know, was a Roman Catholic priest and prolific spiritual writer whose influence some compare to C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.  Born in Holland, Nouwen moved to this country in the 1960s and went on to teach at Notre Dame and Yale.  Then, in 1983, he came to our Divinity School at Harvard, where he taught courses on the spiritual life.

Nouwen did not have an especially happy experience at Harvard.  Rightly or wrongly, he found Harvard to be overly preoccupied with academic achievement and worldly success.  To paraphrase his friend, Robert Ellsberg, Nouwen was a person who wanted to generate community, to foster a deeper spirituality in his students, to talk about how one cultivates a close relationship with Jesus, and he was doing this at a time when most of the graduate students at Harvard wanted to stick to the academic study of religion.  As a consequence, Nouwen was seen by many, Ellsberg writes, “as a bit of a nut, an evangelizer of some sort,” who just didn’t get the Harvard culture.

So, in 1985, Nouwen decided to leave Harvard.  At the time, he was sufficiently famous that he could have gone on to any of a number of other prestigious universities or seminaries.

But instead, Nouwen felt called to join L’Arche, a network of homes for intellectually disabled persons.  L’Arche’s philosophy is not primarily to provide services, or programs, or resources to disabled persons, but rather, in the words of its founder, to say loud and clear to such persons:  “we love you, and with you, we want to create a place of belonging.”  Nouwen would spend the last decade of his life in residence at a L’Arche community near Toronto.

Many of Nouwen’s friends at the time thought he was a fool for leaving a world-renown university to live an obscure and  difficult existence with a group of people who weren’t able to care for themselves and were on no one’s list for a Nobel Prize.  Yet, Nouwen intuited that he just might find God there.

And so he did.  Nouwen writes:  “Living in a L’Arche community is seeing a world where people open themselves up in a spontaneous way, no contrivance, no artifice, no strategizing . . . .  The people in this world are uninterested in impressing you with achievements and credentials.  They are just themselves – broken and without cosmetics or rationalization.  They helped me see beyond the easy divisions we put in place between the well and the unwell, and they gave me the courage to relate to them not in spite of my frailties, but in and through them.”

Nouwen often told the story of a little disabled boy, Jacques, who was making his first holy communion.  After the liturgy the family had a party, at which an uncle said to the boy’s mother:  “Wasn’t it a beautiful liturgy?  The only sad part is that Jacques didn’t understand anything.”  The little boy happened to overhear his uncle and, with tears in his eyes, said to his mother, “Don’t worry, Mummy, Jesus loves me as I am.”

This is the gospel truth into which L’Arche communities try to live, and into which Nouwen sought to live.  What Jesus offers us, Nouwen came to understand, is a fundamental identity of truthfulness.  Not so much the “objective,” impersonal, and academic pursuit of veritas of the university, but rather the inter-subjective truthfulness of that little boy, Jacques:  a consciousness that God loves us in our weakness, and that because he does, we need no longer seek glory and accolades from others, but are instead free to love God’s world with the abandon of a fool.

Let us pray:  Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own mind, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A New Covenant

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 22, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.


Jeremiah the Prophet.
The Bible, as we have it, is printed as one book, divided into two halves: what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament (in English) contains 569,267 words—I hope you had fun over Spring Break while I was counting them all. This is the first three-quarters of the volume. The New Testament is 176,417 words: the last quarter.

And yet of our four weekly readings, two are from the New Testament; one is a little snippet of a psalm, cycling through about 5% of the Bible; and only one is from the remaining 70% of the text, the Old Testament, the only Bible that Jesus or Mary or Paul, Matthew or Mark or Luke or John ever knew. And even then, our lectionary doesn’t always follow through. Today’s first reading is the second-to-last reading we’ll hear from the Old Testament (not counting the psalms) this year—at least at our Sunday evening Chaplaincy services. Next week we have one more, and then during the season of Easter we switch over to the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading, and then we leave for the summer.

So it seems appropriate this week to preach on our reading from the Hebrew Bible. (Christians call it the Old Testament, Jews call it the Tanakh, I’ll mostly call it the Hebrew Bible—they all mean more or less the same thing.)

This passage from Jeremiah is in the midst of a series of readings from the Hebrew Bible that we’ve had throughout Lent. Rather than reading through a single book, we’ve had themed readings in two sets.

The first have been covenant stories, stories about God’s promises to humanity. On the first Sunday in Lent we heard the story of God promising Noah never again to destroy all life with a flood, and setting the rainbow in the sky when it rains to remind himself to stop the rain. This shows God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins. It’s God’s covenant with all living people through Noah and his family. The next Sunday we heard the story of Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah. For Paul, Abraham is the central example of faith. He faithfully answers God’s call in response to God’s promise of children, even though he is so old he’s nearly dead and his wife Sarah has been unable to bear a child. He’s also the first one to enter into the covenant through circumcision, which would become a defining Jewish act later. Abraham narrows the story down from Noah to be God’s covenant with all monotheistic people; so we hear Judaism, Christianity, and Islam referred to as the “Abrahamic faiths.” The next week we heard the Ten Commandments, the central precepts of the Law, which would become—again, for Paul—the defining characteristic of God’s covenant with the Israelites, and later the Jewish people. These covenant stories tell us about God: God is merciful and forgives sins, God is faithful and values faithfulness, and God is ethical and calls us to be ethical.

Then the readings flip over to a second set, readings that are supposed to point us toward Christ. I’ll recap last week’s reading in case you skipped church during Spring Break. It’s sort of a bizarre story. The Israelites are wandering in the desert with Moses. The people complain about the food—they’ve been eating in the dining hall for too long—so God, in a not-very-proportionate response, sends a plague of poisonous snakes. The people repent, so Moses prays that they be saved. God agrees. Okay: now God tells Moses to make a snake, and put it on a pole, and raise it up in the air; when people are bitten, they’ll look at it and live. Here’s how the Gospel of John explains: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

So last week points us toward the cross. Then you’ve got this week’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, promising a new covenant; and then next week, on Palm Sunday, a reading from Isaiah that’s in the first person, that almost demands, in the context of Palm Sunday, that you put Isaiah’s words into Jesus’ mouth:
“I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
And then you have this week’s reading from Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord”; so this is a future time from Jeremiah’s perspective, days which have not come yet but surely will. Jeremiah’s writing right around the destruction of the last Israelite kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the traumatic period of the Babylonian exile. This is a promise for some sort of future restoration of the fortunes of these people, who have had their lives upturned. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:31–32). And how will it be different? “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). So God will make a new covenant; the law will no longer be an external thing we have to learn, but an internal thing, part of our inmost being; and God will forgive our sins.

This sounds like the God we’ve been hearing about throughout Lent, right? God is faithful and keeps her side of the covenant; God is ethical and teaches ethics; God is merciful and forgives sins. But what is this new covenant?

As Christians, of course, we answer: the new covenant is the one God makes with us in Jesus Christ. I think the Old Testament readings from the last few weeks through Easter guide us toward a certain idea of what this means. This new covenant looks a lot like the Christian faith we hear about in a certain way of reading Paul, Augustine, or Luther: a law of the spirit, rather than a law of the flesh or a law written in a book; personal knowledge of God; and the forgiveness of sins.

Taken as a whole, the story goes something like this: God makes covenants with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. Although the people repeatedly fall down on their half of the covenant, God keeps the promises, gives warning after warning through the prophets, and finally fulfills all those promises in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is our half of the new covenant; forgiveness of our sins is God’s half.

I think we can take this reading of Jeremiah too far, and many Christians have. Augustine, for example, goes on to equate the new covenant not only with Jesus, the Christ, but with Christianity, with the Christian New Testament: “Nowhere,” he writes, “or hardly anywhere, except in this passage of the prophet, do we find in the Old Testament Scriptures any mention so made of the New Testament as to indicate it by its name. It is no doubt often referred to and foretold as about to be given, but not so plainly as to have its name mentioned” (On the Spirit and the Letter 33). In other words, according to Augustine, in this passage Jeremiah explicitly names the New Testament.

I think I must have dozed off during that part of the reading. Well are some interesting translation questions here. But basically, Augustine is reading a text of Jeremiah that he understands to say, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will will to the house of Israel and the house of Judah a New Testament” (Jeremiah 31:31). Even though Jeremiah is living and writing six or seven centuries before any piece of the New Testament is written, and maybe nine or ten centuries before it will be called the “New Testament,” the Holy Spirit is somehow guiding his hand to write those words, “the New Testament,” as a promise to later Christians and an argument to persuade later Jews. All throughout the Old Testament, clues are hidden about its replacement, the New Testament that tells us about Christ.

I think there’s a danger if we take the reading this far. It’s what we call “supercessionist.” Supercessionism is the idea that the new covenant in Christ has replaced or “superceded” the old covenant of the Law given to Moses, and so Christians have replaced the Israelites—and their Jewish descendants today—as God’s chosen people. (This is why the name “Old Testament” can be offensive to Jews). Incidentally, the New Testament book of Hebrews, from which we read today, is one of the classic examples of supercessionism; commenting on this passage from Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews writes, “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). As a sort of understated note from the Jewish Annotated New Testament puts it, “Such language helped foster the view that Judaism was an inferior religion, a temporary guide prior to Christ.”  Similarly, in John’s Gospel, you see frequent, charged references to “the Jews” as if they’re somehow a separate group from Jesus (a Jew) and his band of Jewish followers. Particularly during readings of John’s Gospel on Good Friday during the Middle Ages, this has historically led to huge amounts of violence by Christians against Jews.

In a certain way, you can follow the logic. If in Jesus Christ, God has offered a new covenant, replacing the old one, then Jews have rejected a covenant with God. In the Old Testament, in their own Tanakh, when the Israelites reject a covenant with God, God punishes them—either supernaturally or through human means. So the whole history of Christian violence against Jews can be (and has been) explained away as the victims’ collective fault for rejecting God’s new covenant with them.

The point is not that every Christian who believes the supercessionist view is an anti-Semite; but that pretty much every Christian anti-Semite needs to believe something like that supercessionist view. In this season of Lent, we are called to repent not only for our own individual sins, but for our collective sinfulness; and one of the great sins of the Christian Church has been the violence it has inflicted or accepted in the name of God.

So how do we deal with this in a religiously pluralistic society like ours? How do we affirm our Christian faith without accusing our Jewish brothers and sisters of rejecting the covenant God has offered them?
Well of course, if you don’t believe that the covenant in Christ has replaced God’s covenant with the Jewish people, on the other hand, then you don’t believe that the Jews have abandoned that covenant, and so there’s no reason to try to get Jews to convert to Christianity, violently or otherwise. If you believe, for example, that God has extended this covenant to all people, without turning away from the covenant with the Jewish people through the law of Moses—God, after all, we’re reminded in the story of Abraham, is a faithful God, who keeps his promises—you have no theological basis for anti-Semitism. But then what about this new covenant in Christ? I think Jeremiah’s promise actually supports this idea.

There are some plot holes in Augustine’s version of this story. Let’s take a look back at Jeremiah. Do we still teach one another? If you say “no,” I can just sit down. Of course we do! Do we still say to one another, “Know the Lord”? Sure! Do we all know the Lord, from the least to the greatest? No… Is the law—here the word is torah, law or teaching—is God’s Torah written on our hearts, or is it written in a book? We Christians, as much as Jews, rely on a book to understand God’s teaching. Our lives today do not look like the world of the new covenant Jeremiah is promising.
How then can we understand what this new covenant means? I think the very “flaws” I just pointed out are the key.  The world we live in today does not look like the world that God describes to Jeremiah. (Interestingly enough, the world today is also not the one the author of Hebrews predicted, where the obsolete and old Jewish covenant has passed away.) God’s promise to Jeremiah is not completely fulfilled for us in the earthly life of Jesus, or even in his death and resurrection.

I think in particular the notion of a covenant “with the House of Israel and the House of Judah” gives us a clue. The House of Israel is the Ten Lost Tribes, whose kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and who were exiled and lost. The promise of the descendants of the lost tribes being returned, being gathered together from all over the world, to make a new covenant with God, is an eschatological promise, a promise about the end. There is some future time in which the world will be this way; not necessarily a time we can identify as July 3rd, 2315, but an eternal time outside our understanding. Just as the Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey long before they arrived there, we too have been promised a new world brimming with God’s beautiful possibilities; and we cling to the vision of that world, even as wander in the desert.

Most of us are students. All of us have been students, at one time or another. And all of us are, in fact, students still, students of that God who is writing her teaching, her Torah, on our hearts. Our God—the God of Jews and Christians alike—is like that outstanding teacher we could all name. The one who teaches us facts, knowledge, sure; but who, even more importantly, inspires us to care about what we’re learning, draws us out of our focus on grades or college admissions or internships, and shapes the path we take in the future.

The Torah—the first five books of our Bible—if you think about it, is so much more than a series of laws, or even teaching. It is a vivid set of stories, stories that range from poetic hymns of creation and covenant, to funny fables of trickery and betrayal; stories shared for centuries around campfires and among families, repeated over and over again and finally, painstakingly edited together and written down, the holy texts of a people faithful to God through many trials and setbacks, just as God was faithful to them. In and through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God is writing that story on our hearts, writing us, indeed, into that story; so that just as he is the God of the Jews slowly writing the Torah on their hearts in careful study, so too he might be the God of all the nations. Not cutting off the covenant created in Moses with the Jewish people, but restoring and renewing the covenant through Noah with all people, until that day when we shall all know him, from the least to the greatest, Jews and Gentiles alike, the chosen people of God and those who have afflicted them for so long.


“For I will forgive their iniquity,” says the Lord, “and remember their sin no more.”

Amen.

An update on the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education program

A piece of artwork created by one of
the men we mentor at MCI Norfolk.
Over two years ago, our first Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis, started an exciting partnership that has allowed students at ECH to mentor incarcerated students in the Boston University Prison Education Program.  We formed the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education program (HIPE), where students from various faith (an non-faith) communities at Harvard have volunteered through the mentoring organization Partakers.  In this time, about twenty students have visited and written letters to four incarcerated men at MCI Norfolk.

Now that HIPE has been around for a few years, we’ve discovered the challenges of keeping a sustainable program.  Students graduate or have schedule changes between semesters.  Also, few Harvard students have cars, making the prison trips difficult.  Because of this, we are excited to expand the HIPE program to include parishioners at Christ Church Cambridge, continuing to strengthen our connection with the parish!

In November, Arthur Bembury, the executive director of Partakers, gave an information session at Christ Church, and his presentation was met with enthusiasm.  Since then, Arthur has returned to provide an orientation for the volunteers, and five parishioners are in the process of scheduling their first visits.  It’s great to have some new energy in the program, and I hope that this will help to sustain it for years to come!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spring

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–1889

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest and poet, is one of the great religious poets of the Victorian era. Although it is not quite Spring, it still feels like it on this warm day after a long, cold February. We'll take it when we can!

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
  Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
  The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
  The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
  A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
  Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
  Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Follow Me


This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 1, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Mark 8:1

When I was in seminary, a professor once challenged us wannabe priests with the following question:  If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Now, that is a provocative and somewhat humbling question, isn’t it?

After posing the question, the professor then asked us to participate in a little exercise.  Close your eyes, she invited us, and review your own life’s story as if it were a silent film.  Just play back your life in your own mind’s eye:  your childhood and adolescence, your college years, the relationships you formed, the people you’ve loved and been loved by, the work you’ve done and now do, your family life, your contributions to your community, all of your day to day actions and interactions with the people around you, the legacy you will leave behind.  How would your life look to an outside and independent observer, to an imaginary audience watching your life unfold?  More importantly, would Christ recognize himself in this film?  Is this life of yours a distinctively Christian life?

If you’re like me, this little exercise makes you feel more than a little uncomfortable.  Indeed, I feel convicted by it.  Truth be told, my actions and relationships rarely seem to measure up to Christ-like standards.

The point of the exercise is not to depress us, but rather to remind us that the Christian faith is far more than just having the right beliefs and showing up at church on Sunday.  Christianity is as much a way of life as it is a set of creeds or worshipping practices.  Indeed, if you read the gospels closely, you’ll notice that Jesus never asks the disciples to believe this or that; rather, what Jesus asks is that they follow him.

This is a hard message and one to which the Church, quite frankly, has not always paid heed.  As the great American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick used to joke, so-called Christians have for thousands of years been trying to get rid of Jesus. First, they crucified him. And when that didn't work, they started worshipping him. Worship can be just another form of crucifixion because we often use it to get ourselves off the hook of answering the real question Jesus poses. For the truth of the matter is that Jesus doesn't ask to be worshipped, any more than he asked to be crucified.  What he asks is to be followed.

So, how then are we to follow Jesus? What Jesus tells the crowd in today’s lesson is that following him requires two things: to deny oneself, and to take up a cross.  Let’s talk a little about each.

First, what does it mean to deny oneself?  We oftentimes mark Lent with spiritual practices of denying ourselves this or that satisfaction, whether it be certain kinds of food, spending time on Facebook, or whatever.  And these can be small steps towards the type of self-denial that Jesus speaks of today.  But ultimately the denial of self that Jesus embodies and invites us into is something much more radical one.

To deny one’s self involves, at bottom, an act of trust:  trust that we don’t have to fret about our own needs because we will be cared for by God, come what may, and that we can therefore turn our attention outward rather than inward.  In this act of faith, we are freed from the idolatry of the self, and all the worries that come with self-absorption, to live in freedom for others.  As Martin Luther put it, in faith, we are freed from the tyranny of ourselves so that we might, through love, become slaves to one another.

But there is more to discipleship than denying one’s self.  Jesus tells us that we also must take up our cross.  This is the first time in the gospel of Mark that the word ‘cross’ appears, and while we have become so familiar with the symbol that we take it for granted, you can only imagine the shock of Jesus’ hearers when he invites them to take up a cross.

The cross, as we know, was an instrument of torture and death used by the Romans to punish those who dared oppose their power.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells of thousands of crucifixions in the area of Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.  It was primarily a political punishment, inflicted above all on the lower classes, slaves, violent criminals, people the Roman government perceived as dangerous if they got out of control.  Death by crucifixion was a long and painful ordeal, done quite publicly, so as to terrify all who saw it.

We will, of course, vicariously re-live the ghastly drama of Jesus’ own crucifixion when we get to Holy Week and Good Friday, for his own experience of the Cross, his Passion, is at the center of our faith.   But the question today’s lesson poses is what does it mean for us, here and now, to take up our cross, when persecution and martyrdom by the Roman Empire are no longer dangers?

Jesus is not, I think, inviting us to manufacture suffering in our lives for the purpose of establishing our own Christian credentials, as if being Christian were a contest to see who has the most courage or endurance.  Mel Gibson to the contrary notwithstanding, imitating Christ does not require us to become superheroes who inflict pain upon ourselves in a vain effort to prove our merit.  This is the way of narcissistic martyrdom.

Nor, I think, is Jesus asking us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  A lot of harmful nonsense has been said across the generations about “redemptive suffering” by people in power who seek to retain their privilege by persuading those who don’t have power that they should look for the blessing in their lot.  Whites have done it to people of color, men to women, “upper classes” to “lower classes.”  Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross is not this.  Indeed, if anything, it is the inverse of this:  As his life and ministry abundantly demonstrate, taking up the cross is about suffering for and on behalf of others, in an entirely selfless way, when such suffering is required to oppose injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to defend the innocent, to heal the sick, or just to share in the pain of another as an act of mercy.

To take up the cross in this sense means to identify and accept all those opportunities in our lives where we can stand in solidarity with those who are without.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “the view from below”:  assuming the perspective of those at the bottom of the ladder and on the wrong end of power, not so that we might avenge their plight, but rather out of a desire to restore their humanity when they are at most risk of losing it.

What does this look like for you and for me?  It can be anything and everything from devoting your vocational life to a cause aligned with the gospel, to caring for a child with disabilities, to volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen, to visiting the aged and infirm, to befriending the lonely, to refusing to engage in social patterns of exploitation, abuse or neglect of others.  But in whatever form it may assume in your life, taking up the cross, by its very nature, requires stepping out of the safety and security of privilege and stepping into the messy chaos of human pain and suffering.  Not for the sake of suffering, not for the sake of our own egos, but for love’s sake.

The wise Episcopal priest and teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, talks about ‘taking up one’s cross’ in these terms:  Crucifixion was used by the Romans, Taylor says,  to “reinforce the idea that death is the most awful thing in the world and that people with any sense should do anything in their power to avoid it.  By telling his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus defied that idea.  He suggested that there are things worse than death in the world, and that living in fear is near the top of the list.”

If we let fear run our lives, Taylor explains, then fear becomes our god.  And if fear becomes our god, all our days are consumed by anxiety and worry, such that when our anxious days finally come to an end – for death cannot be avoided forever – we come to discover that we have really never lived at all.  This is, I think, what Jesus means when he says that those who are preoccupied with saving their lives will lose them.

Let us not give in to, much less worship, fear.  Let us instead offer up our selves, our souls, and our bodies to Christ, to His world, and to each other; let us take up our cross, whatever it may be; let us be willing to give up our lives so that we might save them; let us, in short, follow Jesus.

Amen.