The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading

Jesus Sets Us Up

In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.

Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.

And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.

The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.

Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.

Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.

And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.

Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.

The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.

In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.

Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.

It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.

But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.

There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here. Continue reading

Trump: The American Shadow Concretized

Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.

I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.

The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.

And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.

Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?

President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.

I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.

I think we have a deeper problem. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

The thing about being a fish is that you don’t know that you’re swimming in water.

The thing about being an American is that you don’t know you’re addicted to success.

For the fish, the water is its whole world.

It does not even register on whatever primitive consciousness the fish may have that it is in this liquid medium, and that there is another whole world of air and space that exists outside of it.

Unfortunately for the fish, he can’t survive outside of the water, so he’s probably better off not knowing about the world of air.

We humans are in a similar situation.

From virtually the day we are born, we are taught to orient ourselves toward success.

As we learn to walk and talk, we receive praise for each new word and each new step.

As we grow up and go to school, we learn how to get the affirmation and attention we need by conforming to the expectations of adults and peers.

And as adults, we climb the career ladder, try to make more money, get a bigger house, take more impressive vacations, get more promotions.

We count each trophy our children earn and tick off each box on their college prep resumes.

There’s nothing wrong with this orientation toward progress per se.

In fact, it helps us accomplish a lot of good things in our lives.

If we didn’t value and strive toward success, we never would have learned to walk and talk and read and get into college or get a job.

We need success to get the basics of life taken care of.

But just like the fish, there is a whole world outside this water of success orientation that we don’t know about. Continue reading

Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?

And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.

Sometimes we act as though it might.

The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.

The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.

That does not create transformed people.

In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.

(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)

So what can we say definitively about vocation? Continue reading

John the Baptist, Total Rockstar

The older I get, the more I admire John the Baptist.

He, like Mary and a few other people in the Bible, are all the more remarkable for the fact that they at times achieved Jesus-like moments of spiritual realization, while being fully human themselves.

And yet their moments of humanity, where they clearly can’t keep up with Jesus, make them all the more endearing.

Stop for a moment and consider this incident with John in our gospel today.

This is the culmination of his ministry—proclaiming to the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

He went through all the years in the desert, years one assumes were necessary to understand the message he was to deliver.

Then he baptized Jesus—what a pinnacle of joy! He has prepared the way for the Lord, and now announces him to the world.

But then it’s all over in the space of a few seconds.

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

Just like that, end of story.

John is no longer in the picture.

His disciples have just abandoned him to follow Jesus.

John’s ministry is over in the space of ten seconds, in one conversation.

John is no longer important.

He’s no longer necessary.

He has lost his job, his friends, and his purpose.

And it’s only downhill from there. He’ll be in jail before long.

What kind of reward is that for his faithfulness?

But this is what makes John the Baptist so remarkable, and so worthy of our admiration and emulation.

This is what led Jesus to say, “Among those born of women, not one is greater than John.”

John, somehow, by virtue of some divine experience, was able to let everything go so that Jesus’ mission was accomplished.

John let go everything and everyone he loved, giving them all freely to Jesus, leaving him with nothing.

How did he do it? Continue reading

The Great Pattern, Or, There Can Be No Disaster

It’s rather an ignominious start to Jesus’ ministry, but you have to read past the end of our gospel lesson to realize that.

When the curtain closes on our passage from Matthew 3 today, it’s a beautiful happy ending.

John baptizes Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness,” God declares him the beloved with whom God is well pleased, and end scene.

Sunlight, water, voices from heaven, the devoted John and the interested crowd—it’s a perfect set-up.

This is the debut of the Lamb of God on the world stage.

What’s he going to do next?

What intriguing sermon or salvific healing or jaw-dropping miracle will he do to kick off his earthly work?

Well, if you take a look at Matthew 4, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

The last sentence of Matthew 3, which we read this morning, is, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'”

And the first sentence of Matthew 4, which we did not read this morning, says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

Ouch.

That’s the climax of the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Continue reading

The Church as the Infant Body of Christ: We’re Just Getting Started

I think we can all agree that the Church has been pretty ineffective in general at both sharing and living the gospel, and 2016 was probably one of our worst years on record.

If the measure of the Church is its ability to bind up the brokenhearted and seek justice in the earth, our record looks extra lame this year.

From the paranoid, truth-free politics of the U.S. election to our paralyzed gawking at slaughter and starvation in Syria, 2016 was pretty much a bust.

And when I say “the Church,” I mean that on all possible levels.

I mean the three specific congregations I have served this year, my diocese, the Episcopal Church USA, the Anglican Communion, worldwide Christianity and the Church Universal.

Actually, I basically mean everyone making some kind of effort to do right in the world, whether he or she takes on the label of “Christian” or not.

After all, Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

So we’re basically crap at our job.

Suffering is at an all time high.

There is an edge of despair in our society right now that seems to render “peace on Earth, goodwill toward all people,” a cruel mockery.

Add the veneer of “ho, ho, ho,” and “deck the halls” and it becomes almost grotesque.

What do we do? Continue reading

Joseph: An Unstable Righteousness

The time is coming very shortly, just a few days away, in fact, when our total attention will be focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah.

That attention is wholly appropriate to Christmas Eve and is the triumphant endpoint of our entire Advent preparation.

But there is one person who seems to fade into the background on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that’s Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.

In fact, fading into the background seems entirely in his nature. He seems like a behind-the-scenes type of guy.

We all know them—these people who are the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, faithful souls whose quiet devotion to the simple, humble things that have to be done keeps the church and the family going.

That’s Joseph.

But today in our gospel story he is dragged out into the limelight, and if we spend a little time with Joseph, we see that he is a man of profound spiritual depth, someone from whom we can learn a lot.

We read today that Joseph was a righteous man.

When he finds out that Mary is pregnant and he knows the child is not his because they are engaged but not married yet, he would have been well within his rights to call her out publicly.

After the child was born, she could have been executed by stoning. Continue reading

An End to Performance Anxiety

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the performance principle, and about how it honestly has dominated my entire life.

The influence of my upbringing and my society has encouraged me to base most of my self-worth on what I do, how I perform, what I achieve.

I know I’m not alone in that!

I sense that God is changing that in me in a “three steps forward, two steps back” sort of way, and I have to tell you, slow as it is, that change is actually incredibly liberating and peace-giving.

I told one of my spiritual direction partners that I’m realizing over and over how much of what I do and what’s going on around me doesn’t matter in any final sense, and far from being nihilistic, that’s a joyful realization.

In conjunction with that strand of spiritual call, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about something that may sound a bit odd.

I’m starting to wonder if part of discipleship is just learning how to put up with the fact that we’re kind of jerks sometimes, and there’s probably a piece of that that we can’t ever grow out of or get rid of.

Does that make sense?

The honest spiritual desire to grow in faith, to practice spiritual discipline and see it effect real change in us, can lead us right back to the worthiness and holiness trap.

It’s the performance principle that used to be focused on the outer world—job, salary, possessions, looks, Facebook likes—translated into spiritual athleticism.

Suddenly we have a false and hollow goal that one day—one magical day!—we’ll have Arrived. We will have “achieved” Being a Good Christian.

Well, what if we never will? Continue reading