Monday, May 30, 2016

Blessing Beyond the Boundaries

[Sermon from May 29, 2016. 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Luke 7:1-10]
On the secular calendar, this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service to the nation.  On the church calendar, we’ve begun a different marking of time, the “long green season” of ordinary time, the Sundays after Pentecost.  For the next few months – until Advent, in fact – we’ll hear stories from Jesus’ ministry, as well as their Old Testament roots, fleshing out for us the never-ending journey of Christian discipleship.  So in this odd juxtaposition of a national holiday and the Church’s ordinary time, how do we make sense of our need to remember those who’ve died in our nation’s conflicts, as well as our need to worship the God who commands us to beat our swords into plowshares and follow the Prince of Peace?
Though war is certainly “all hell,”1 as William Tecumseh Sherman said, God also lifts from its blood and ashes what Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.”2  On Memorial Day, I think we’d say it’s not simply millions of deaths that we honor but the purposes we imagine those deaths sought to realize.  After all, simply honoring death is not a particularly Christian thing to do.  But we also believe, deep in our national soul, that a war must mean more than death, more than raw assertion of power, if it is to be just.  So we focus on the good we believe the war intends, as well as the virtues war can raise up in otherwise unremarkable people.
As it happens, I think an event in town last weekend, as well as our readings here this morning, help us glimpse some of those better angels of our nature rising from the hell of war.  The event last weekend was a concert by the Kansas City Symphony that included the world premiere of a work to mark the centennial of World War I.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this in Kansas City, home of the national World War I Museum.  The new symphony reflected on the war not just instrumentally but through the words of two Americans who served in it.  As it happens, one of those voices belongs to the father and uncle of two members of our parish family.  That soldier is 1st Lieutenant Burnham “Burnie” Hockaday, uncle of Irv Hockaday and father of Laura Rollins Hockaday.
In his letter home, you can hear Burnie’s pride and hope as he writes to his mother from England, on the threshold of six months literally in the trenches, suffering he surely can’t yet imagine.  On that innocent side of the bloodshed, Burnie readies himself for what I’m sure he sees as a noble conflict, a war the U.S. entered intending to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy.  A hundred years later, we hear those words and cringe at their naiveté, for we know about the failure of the League of Nations; the unspeakable carnage of the next, even greater war; and the sinful acts that have been perpetrated in freedom’s name.  But Burnie and his comrades believed in the nobility of what they were doing – making the world safe for democracy, fighting to inaugurate an era of peace.  That was the good those young men intended, for no one wants lasting peace more than the 18-year-old who’s heading into the trench.  They saw their mission not simply as winning a war but as extending liberty to those outside the boundaries of that blessing.
And there in England, as he made his way to the front, Burnie Hockaday noticed a virtue arising among the people, a virtue that enabled the mission he and they were striving to achieve.  Riding a train through the English countryside, Burnie Hockaday was surprised by the first fighters he saw in action – the women of England who literally were making the war possible.  He wrote to his mother about the example they set:  “One of the things that impressed me most was the women in the big factories and plants. … [In] every factory, whether it [is] an iron foundry or a chemical plant or what[ever] we passed, … [i]t is the English women who are winning the war today, in my opinion.  The sacrifices which they are undergoing ha[ve] won from all of us [soldiers] the highest admiration.”3
But even more than the women’s work ethic, Burnie noticed the last thing he expected to see in a society strictly divided by class.  Here’s how he described it to his mother:  “[T]he servants are working side by side with the mistresses, all in [overalls] and cheerfully doing any unpleasant work assigned to them, all the way from making shells, [to] running a steam engine … to delicate tasks in a chemical factory.”3  Now, anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey knows social class was an unbridgeable gap in Edwardian England, and the Conservative and Labor parties are still fighting that battle in English politics today.  But the fire of war can fashion noble virtues.  Among those British women, that virtue was unity – setting aside longstanding and intractable division, setting aside a deep and sinful presumption of difference, all for the common good.
And what, you may be asking, does any this have to do with our discipleship, as we follow Jesus with stumbling steps through this long, green season as he teaches and heals and brings the commonwealth of God to life?  Here’s the connection I see:  In our best moments – certainly as Christians but also as Americans – in our best moments, we transcend our temptation to make life all about “us” and “them.”  In our best moments, we seek to reach across human boundaries and bless those we find on the other side. 
Think about the reading we heard from 1 Kings, part of the great history of the people of Israel as they moved from scattered tribes, to a unified nation, to grievous division, and finally to destruction and exile.  Today we pick up that long history at its Camelot moment, at least from the historian’s perspective, with the great Temple of Solomon just completed.  Solomon is Israel’s most powerful king; he has taken what his father, King David, left him and built Israel into a regional power.  As his crowning achievement, Solomon builds a great Temple to the Lord – a magnificent structure to reflect the glory of the one true King, Yahweh, whose palace the Temple would be.  And in this moment of national triumph, with the people gathered around this symbol of the exceptionalism Israel claimed – in this moment, as Solomon prays to dedicate this symbol of divine nationhood, Solomon also prays for the outsiders.  He asks God, “When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven … and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name…” (1 Kings 8:42-43). 
Even in Israel’s greatest national moment, Solomon knows his nation’s existence is not about itself.  Israel is there as a missionary presence.  As the prophet Isaiah says, speaking for God, “I have given [Israel] as … a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6-7).  “You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 55:5).  And about that glorious structure Solomon built, Isaiah makes its intention clear:  The Lord will bring outsiders to join themselves to the Lord’s family.  “[T]hese I will bring to my holy mountain,” God proclaims, “and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7). 
Then, in the Gospel reading, God keeps pushing back the boundaries that our world and our hearts erect.  Jesus gets a plea for healing from probably the last person he would have expected – a Roman centurion.  Roman army officers were more likely to kill Jewish leaders for sport than to seek a blessing in respect.  But this company commander is what they called a “God fearer” – not a Jew, because Roman army officers were forbidden from professing allegiance to anyone but the emperor, but someone who honored the God of Israel nonetheless.  This centurion stands for the nations that Solomon and Isaiah described, those who would come to Israel’s God to share in the blessings of healing providence.  And Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the Jewish elders around him that God welcomes this outsider with open arms.  “I tell you,” Jesus says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” as his (Luke 7:9).
At our national best, we know we’re called to serve the outsider, too.  We’re called to light “the torch of freedom for nations [yet] unborn,” as the collect for Independence Day puts it (BCP 242).  But before we can reach across our boundaries to bless those on the other side, we must first join together ourselves, like the English women of all classes whom Burnie Hockaday saw laboring in the iron works.  In our best national moments, we have found ways to join hands so that we might reach out in blessing to those beyond us. 
But more often now, we hear the discourse of division and the rhetoric of retrenchment.  We vilify those who disagree with us, and we fan the flames of fear of the outsider – especially those who look “different” somehow.  Yes, the world can be a dangerous and ugly place; but God’s call to people of faith is to proclaim a contrast reality, not to buy into a narrative of negativity.  As Lincoln noted, “the Almighty has his own purposes”;4 and nothing frustrates those holy purposes quite like dividing ourselves from one another and walling ourselves off from those we’re called to bless.
This weekend, as we honor those who have given their lives hoping to bring blessing to people they didn’t know, and as we worship our God who always looks to push back the boundaries of the circle of blessing, we might do well to ask ourselves, “How are we measuring up?”  Are we answering the call to become “out of many, one”?  Are we adding chairs to the welcome table?  Are we following Jesus’ lead and looking for the next person to bring into the family? 
As a people, our greatest generations were those that came together, and gave themselves away, to bless those they didn’t even know.  Are we among those greatest?  We can be, if we spread out our hands to heaven and pray for our hearts to be changed.

1.       Military Quotes.  “William Tecumseh Sherman Quotes.” Available at:  Accessed May 28, 2016.
2.       Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.”  Available at:  Accessed May 28, 2016.
3.       Hockaday, Burnham, to Clara Hockaday.  Personal correspondence, June 23, 1918.  Archives of the National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO.  For more information on Burnie Hockaday, see  For information about the Kansas City Symphony commission involving his letter, see and
4.       Lincoln, Abraham.  “Second Inaugural Address.”  Available at:  Accessed May 28, 2016.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prince and the Nature of God

[Sermon from May 22, 2016; Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15]
So, this is Trinity Sunday, and it’s about the worst card a preacher can draw.  There are at least two reasons why:  First, God is inexplicable mystery, and the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially trying to explain something inexplicable.  I might as well try to explain love … which is what I am trying to do, isn’t it?  The second challenge is that people tend to tune out after about three sentences of theological sermons.  Soon, I risk becoming Charlie Brown’s teacher – wah, wah, wah, wha – and leaving you scribbling in your bulletin.
So, here’s a special surprise to listen for in today’s sermon, like the toy at the bottom of the box of Cracker Jacks.  As you know, the musician Prince died recently.  Prince’s death tells us something about Trinitarian theology.  What is it?  You’ll have to hang on to find out.
So, what does Scripture say about the Trinity?  Not much directly, and very much mysteriously.  The Holy Trinity dances through Scripture, tripping the light fantastic but never lingering too long.  Like us, the writers of Scripture received glimpses of God’s nature and struggled with how to frame it.  Think about the creation account in Genesis.  God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26) – explicitly plural, male and female, expressing life and relationship fully.  Then we have our readings this morning.  The reading from Proverbs casts divine Wisdom as a feminine presence, with the Creator from the beginning, delighting in the earth, its creatures, and its people.  In the reading from John’s Gospel, we get a description of God in interrelated partnership, with Jesus representing the Father, and the Holy Spirit coming as the ongoing guide thereafter, taking what is Christ’s – and, therefore, what is the Father’s – and declaring it to us. 
Got all that?
And to make it even more complicated, we also have 2,000 years of theological reflection on the mystery of God’s nature.  It’s good to keep in mind that what we might see as the basics – the Nicene Creed, sort of the Holy Trinity for Dummies – that didn’t take shape until more than 200 years after the Gospels were written.  And that creed is a direct result of conflicting interpretations of God’s nature.  Followers of a priest named Arius believed Jesus had a different nature than the Father, having been created – the first among creatures, but still a creature, not God.  Others believed something more like what we would say today.  And the Church – newly the official religion of the Roman Empire, under Constantine – the Church needed an answer.  So the bishops who came together at the Council of Nicaea argued it out, eventually taking the stance we know as the Nicene Creed.  But the conflict continued, and it was more than a century later before what we “know” as the nature of God and the nature of Christ was set down as orthodoxy.  And along the way, literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of people died in rioting and official violence brought about by people who thought they knew the truth about God’s nature.
The Nicene Creed is the basic structure of Christian belief, the grammar that supports our theological conversations.  But the Creed doesn’t try to explain how Jesus might be both human and divine; nor does it get into how the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer interrelate.  That’s a real hotbed of heresy because it seems that every time we try to explain how God works, we get it wrong, one way or another.  If we focus on defining which person of the Trinity does what, imagining that God just adopts different roles as Father, Son, and Spirit, then we’re into modalism.  If we focus too much on the oneness of God, and see Jesus and the Holy Spirit as something less than divine, then we’re into unitarianism.  If we focus on the relative authority of the persons of the Trinity, with the Father as the guy in charge, then we’re into subordinationism.  If we combine those perspectives, with Jesus as a subordinate creation, then we’re into Arianism, named after Arius.  And if we imagine Jesus wasn’t really human at all and didn’t actually experience the pain and suffering of life, then we’re into Docetism. 
So, now that your mind is beginning to numb, it’s time for your surprise in the box of Cracker Jacks.  How does the musician Prince come into all this?  Well, as we learned from the news reports of his funeral, Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness,1 and Witness theology includes Arianism and unitarianism.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God is a single monarch, not a trinity.  They see the Holy Spirit as Jehovah’s active force in the world, not a separate person of the Godhead; and they see Jesus as Jehovah’s first creation, not of the same substance as the Father.2  That doesn’t mean Jehovah’s Witnesses are bad people.  But it does mean that, even today, Trinitarian theology differentiates Christians from quasi-Christians.
So why does it matter what we believe?   Why does it matter that we worship God as three persons of a common substance?  What we believe doesn’t have any effect on God’s nature, of course.  But I’d say it does have an effect on us.
In the same way that praying shapes believing, so believing shapes living – and often in ways we’d never say “out loud.”  But think about some of the heresies I mentioned and what effect those beliefs might have on the way we live:
·        What if you follow subordinationism, seeing the Father as the monarch who lords it over the Son, the Spirit, and the world?  Well, then you might think that godly behavior looks that way, and you might try to lord your authority over others, too.
·        What if you follow Arianism, seeing Jesus as the first among creatures rather than seeing Jesus as God in the flesh?  Well, we’re taught to see Jesus in the people around us.  But we might treat those people differently depending on whether we think they’re just reflections of a good man or whether we think they’re truly reflections of the face of God.
·        What if you follow Docetism, seeing Jesus as God pretending to be human?  Well, if God didn’t take truly human form in Jesus, we might imagine God keeps that distance still, not really caring all that much about the suffering we face and the suffering of all those people with whom we share the world.
But what if you see God as Three in One and One in Three, eternal partners in a dance of love, valuing relationship above everything, and always, always seeking to take relationship one step further across creation?  Well, if we see God like that, then we know deep in our bones that we’re wired the same way.  Now, those wires may get crossed sometimes.  Sin certainly trips us up.  But deep down, we humans are all about loving relationship, too.  Deep down, we share Trinitarian DNA.  Deep down, we know that unity trumps division and collaboration trumps self-interest – despite the fact that it’s the harder path: the way of self-giving, the way of healing, the way of the cross. 
Our mission, as the Church, is precisely this: to restore all people to unity with God, and each other, in Christ.  That’s our mission because it was God’s mission first.  Unity in relationship – that’s just what God does.  The Holy Trinity always keeps dancing, and we are the Trinity’s feet – each of us sent to reach others and invite them into the dance, as well.

1.        Lah, Kyung, and Jack Hannah.  “Inside Prince’s private faith.”  CNN.  April 25, 2016.  Available at:  Accessed May 20, 2016.
2.        Mead, Frank S., and Samuel S. Hill.  Handbook of Denominations in the United States.  11th ed.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.  178-181.