Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Dearth of American Orthodox Missions

I gave this message this past New Year's eve Sunday in a parish in Pennsylvania.  This particular parish is actually one of the exceptions, trying to do their part with what they have to reach their community and also support Orthodox overseas missionaries.  There are other parishes like them.  And we have a fantastic and effective sending agency to facilitate the sending of Orthodox missionaries, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). But as we will see, we American Orthodox Christians and our leaders still have some work to do.

This coming Tuesday morning, everyone of us who is a student will get up, get dressed, have breakfast and put our warm clothes on and head out the door because of what?  Apologies, but You’re going to school!  And when you get to school, what are you going to do?  You are going to listen, take notes, discuss get in groups - you are going to learn.  And what’s the purpose of you going to school and learning?  So you can get into a university and do more learning.   And you go and do that because that’s one of our culture’s best ways of enabling you to support yourself and your family and to enable you to pursue your dream.  That means all the young people in this room right now have a mission.  To go to school and do the best they can so that with God’s help the right doors will open for you to be the man or the woman God is calling you to be.

And you men and women here this morning,  when you wake up on Tuesday or Wednesday, there’s a good chance that you are going to get yourself ready and then do what?  Go off to work. And what are you doing going to work?  Most of us work because we need to support ourselves and our family.  And that’s important.  But God has you there for an even bigger reason, so that you can be God’s light in that place, so that you can be God’s love in that place.  So you get up and go to work because you know that God is in the middle of all this and so you have a mission.

But what about us as a church?  Why do we exist?  What brings us together?  Someone might say, so that the Mysteries can be celebrated and offered.  And yes, that is very important.  Someone else might say so that we can grow in Christ and attain theosis.  And yes that too is very important.  But many of us have lost sight that this is not all.  There’s more!  We don’t just have a mandate to love and serve one another in our parishes, as important as that is.  We also have a purpose, a calling, a mission.  We don’t just face inward.  We face outward, and with intent.  But for most parishes [there are a number of wonderful exceptions, but they serve to prove the rule], it’s sort of like getting off a plane at an airport and then collecting my bag and then waiting with other people for a bus.  And a bus comes and we all get on, and then the bus starts going.  And it is a proper bus, with comfortable seats, and a loo in the back.  It might even have an entertainment screen on the seat back in front of you.  But after a few minutes you look around, and some of your fellow passengers have fallen asleep.  Others are watching a movie.  Others are engrossed in conversation.  But you are wondering, where are we going?  And so you ask the person next to you, ‘Do you know where we are going?’  And they don’t.  And so you ask someone else, and they don’t either.  And so you go up to the driver and ask her. And she doesn’t know either.  And so you check the bus number, and it is the right bus, its the ‘ortho’- bus so to speak.  We seem to be making good time, but it’s good time to nowhere, because nobody knows where we’re supposed to be going.

Makeshift Iconostasis at a Divine Liturgy under at tent in a newly organising parish in Kenya.

Or let me put it another way.  In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is set apart because he has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplishing that mission, of preparing the way of the Lord.  And when the Lord Jesus comes, he too has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplish that mission, the mission of bringing salvation to all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  And the apostles, and those other men and women who were around Jesus, who heard him teach, watched him heal and perform miracles, saw him die, witnessed him resurrected from the dead, those men and women also had a mission - to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

And we, Christians today, we our Lord’s Church today, we have a mission.  Because our mission hasn’t changed from when our Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles and all his followers to go in his name and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And then he gave this promise to them - Look, as you go in my name, I will be with you always, from now until the end.  And my Holy Spirit will empower you and enable you to fulfil the mission I am giving you.

l/r Fr. Dcn James and his wife Jane, Bishop Athanasios, Fr. Agapios, and Dr. Bill,
on a preaching mission to Butali, Kenya in July 2017.

Did you know that we have a mission?  We Christians?  We the Church?  And do you know how we are supposed to accomplish this mission?  Paul puts it this way:  ‘How can they call on Someone of whom they don’t know?  And how will they believe in Him if they have never heard of Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?  And how can someone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written:  How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ (Romans 10:14-15, paraphrase mine)  We are Gospel people, says Paul.  We are either being sent, or we are helping with the sending.  And we are either being sent or helping to do the sending because we want all the people’s of the world to hear the good news about our Lord Jesus, we want to remove everything that might possibly get in the way of hearing and responding to His love.  And the church, our church is charged with making this happen.  Our vocation is to be a missionary community, both right here in our Jerusalem and over there in our Judea and Samaria, and even to the farthest corners of the planet.  God calls us to be his missionary people, either going ourselves in His name, or making it possible for others to go and be his love.

Divine Liturgy led by His Eminence Makarios for Maasai in the Rift Valley

Let me give you some statistics.  I was for 21 years an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  They have about as many members as all the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have put together.  And they are one of the most liberal of the Protestant denominations.  They have about 1,700,000 members. Do you know how many missionaries the PCUSA has overseas right now?  About 200 full time missionaries.  There was a conservative split off the PCUSA about 40 years ago called the Presbyterian Church in America.  They have about 370,000 members. Guess how many full time missionaries they have? 800.  They are 1/5 the size and send out 4X the number of the larger more liberal denomination.  The Assemblies of God, a big American Pentecostal denomination, has about 2000 full time missionaries. The Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in our country with about 16 million members, they have 3,800 missionaries.  SIM is the largest independent evangelical mission organisation, and they have 4,400 full time missionaries. 

Talking to some guys about the Gospel and Orthodoxy

And now, can anyone guess how many missionaries are presently sent out by all the Orthodox jurisdictions of the American Churches?  19 full-time missionaries.  And I am one of them.  In fact, I am the only American Orthodox OCMC missionary serving on the whole continent of Africa.  We don't have thousands.  We don't have hundreds.  We have 19. Let this number sink in.  Because I think it shows us all where our priorities are not.  We have been called by our Lord himself to be a missionary people, to either go ourselves or to help in the sending.  Are there only 19 of us?  And this one standing before you is having trouble raising his support because I can’t find enough people either interested in or willing to help with what God is doing through the Orthodox Church in Kenya and all of Africa.  And the Orthodox seminary where I was teaching, where I was the deputy dean under HE Archbishop Makarios, was shut down 18 months ago because we have no funding.  We are the only school on the continent training Orthodox priests for the African Churches, and now we have sent all our students home because we have no money.  Our lack of engagement with our missionary calling as Orthodox Christians and parishes is having serious consequences, not just in Africa, but across the globe.

Me preaching at a Pascha day evangelistic outreach sponsored by a local parish

So let me ask you, what is your mission?  What is your reason for existing as a Church?  Are we riding around in a comfortable, beautiful bus but going nowhere?  Or is your heart on fire with the love of God the way John the Baptist’s heart was on fire, the way the apostles’ hearts were on fire?  The way our Lord Jesus himself is burning with love when he thinks of you, when he offers himself for you and me on the cross, when he rises again from the dead for you and me, when he sends his Holy Spirit for the very purpose of empowering us to be His witnesses starting right here in  your neighbourhood and crossing every ocean to every hamlet and village, every mega city and every slum, even to a place called Kisumu in western Kenya where Bishop Athanasius Akunda has called me to come and join him in his work there.  The Lord is doing a great work of salvation across this world, and he is calling you to come and join him.  Will you come?  Will you help?  Remember what Mordecai said to Queen Esther when the Jews faced annihilation?  ‘Do not say to yourself that you alone will be saved in the kingdom apart from all the other Jews.  For if you choose not to heed this request at this time, help and deliverance for the Jews will arise elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish.  Besides, who knows whether it is for this occasion that you reign as queen?’ (Esther 4:13-15)

Me speaking to 100+ university students who came to learn about Orthodoxy.

We Americans are blessed.  We have more than we could possible need or use.  God has called us to be his partners, he is giving us a mission in our Jerusalem, yes; but in our Judea and Samaria as well, and even to the ends of the earth.  Who knows whether it is for this occasion that you are an Orthodox Christian and an Orthodox parish in this place and at this time?

Makeshift altar for outreach service under a tree.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Allegations and Their Consequences

Execution of Robespierre and others during the 'Reign of Terror' phase of the French Revolution

I never thought I would see the day when wealthy powerful American men who have long used their power and position to take sexual advantage of women would be both called out and called to account.  But this has been happening over the past several months.  And the courage that many women are showing by telling their stories is being celebrated by many in the media.  The stories that these women are telling are both very sad and not surprising.  Ours is a culture that allows, even encourages men to objectify women.  Long before online pornography made graphic images a click away on every male cell phone, guys in locker rooms and bars were discussing what they did or were going to do or were pretending to do to women.  This was considered normal back then (like last year), just as porn use is considered by many to be normal today.  Setting aside the moral corrosion such ‘normal’ behavior represents, what this does tell us about what has passed for the culturally acceptable American male posture towards women is deeply disturbing.  And with the many stories that are coming forward from women who have experienced everything from unwanted advances, touching and groping, to attempted and actual rape, we today are being confronted with the actual terrible costs of these deeply inculturated, self-centered attitudes towards women and sex on the part of American males of all races, and all economic and education levels, too.  

I have two married daughters, and it is profoundly distressing that this is the world that they are forced to navigate.  For too long, we men have behaved as if we will never be held responsible for our actions, for the way we treated the women in our life.  But the astonishing drumbeat of revelations concerning yet another powerful media personality or political leader that have filled the news recently are causing many men to reexamine their past behavior.  Some are doing so with an eye towards covering up past ‘indiscretions’, some are fearful, and with good reasons, of what newly emboldened women they have used might say or do.  Others are realizing that just by going along with the chattered exploits of others, even if we ourselves have not made a woman feel uncomfortable, we are still part of the problem and not part of the solution.  One can only hope that fathers are having conversations with their sons about how to treat women, and what is appropriate and what isn’t when it comes to sexual relationships.  And one can only hope that fathers and mothers are also having conversations with their daughters about how to avoid difficult situations with men, and how to get out if one finds oneself being treated badly.  For too long families have responded with shame when it comes to both the discussions and the realities, making it doubly hard on daughters (and sons) if they find themselves being pressured for sex.

The experiences of the many women who have come forward, and the many more who may still be too afraid to do so, are truly horrific.  But this will simply be but another in a series of cultural blips, an exception that ends up proving the awful rule, if this is just a passing media moment and results in no soul searching and no real change in behavior.  However, this reckoning is actually more difficult that the present discussion on TV, online and in print is letting on, for the simple reason that the media elites promoting this national discussion on sexual morality are trying to have it both ways.  American men and women and various sexual identity groups have been obliterating moral boundaries for nearly 50 years.  In our country, sex outside marriage has become ok, sex between teenagers has become ok, sex between men has become ok, sex between women has become ok, sex in movies has become ok, sex online has become ok.  And yet now we are being told that this other kind of sex, the kind that makes someone feel uncomfortable, is not ok.  Given the erosion of sexual morality in this country and the negation of any kind of moral absolutes that have accompanied the march of so-called sexual freedom, there are actually no moral arguments one can make to justify calling unwanted sexual advances ‘wrong’.  By whose standards is this, much less any other questionable sexual behavior, wrong?  The only thing that makes this ‘wrong’ today is a kind of cultural consensus.  But as we have seen, a cultural consensus can evaporate in a generation, just as we have seen with the changing societal consensus concerning gay sex.  Just saying.  Of course even when the West had a fairly straightforward Christian sexual morality some people were engaged in the above mentioned behaviors and some men were still treating some women abominably.  But at least there was a clear understanding across the culture that it was wrong and unacceptable to treat another person made in the image of God in this way.  Even so, the downside of any morality is always hypocrisy.

That being said, there is something else going on that should make every man very concerned.  Our legal system enshrines the notion of due process for a very good reason.  There is a tendency to rush to judgment, to think the worst about a person based on what someone is saying, based on allegations, without getting to the bottom of the matter.  There is tremendous and justifiable outcry when we look back and see how black men were lynched by mobs on the basis of allegations or mere suspicion.  Where was the rule of law, where was due process for these men?  The reason we have so many checks on prosecutors and rules about allowable evidence is to keep such travesties of justice from happening.  And yet I am watching as men have their reputations destroyed, their families threatened and are fired from their positions, all on the basis of allegations.  We are witnessing case after case of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, except in the case of too many, no proof is actually allowed.  Clearly there are guilty men who have admitted their fault and are facing consequences for their actions.  But what about those who aren’t guilty?  Is it possible that there are some men who are being framed by someone with a grudge?  Have we come to any kind of consensus as to what is a fireable offense and what was intended innocently?  I heard one woman leader of the me-too movement say essentially that she didn’t care if innocent men got caught up in the ‘purge’ (her word).  She said that this is just the price that must be paid for righting all the wrongs done against women by men.  She gave the impression that she didn’t consider any men to be innocent, participating as they all do in this culture of oppression against women.  It was quite the interview.  It was quite chilling.

This is my concern (after we help women who have been treated badly by men get the support and help they need):  If we are in a ‘purge’, and if there is no concern for due process, then any one of us men could face an accusation of sexual harassment at anytime.  I have friends who faced this hell.  They did nothing to justify the accusations and the subsequent disruption to their lives.  Eventually and after great expense they were exonerated.  But in the current climate, the accuser would be believed before me or you every time.  And with no evidence.  And with no corroboration.  There goes my career.  There goes my family.  There goes my life.  This is a revolution in danger of going amuck, like the one in France, like the one in Russia.  It is true - no one is getting guillotined or massacred for being on the wrong side.  But reckless and irresponsible charges can destroy lives.  I have lived long enough to observe that just as there are bad actors among us men, there are also bad actors among women.  We should continue to support women who have suffered at the hands of men and to hold those men responsible for what they have done.  But let us also, in this age of Trump, not forget that fake news is a thing.  As are alternative facts.  And not everybody is as concerned about justice as ‘we’ are.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Driving in Kenya - What I’m Not Missing

The road I live on.  To their credit, the government has paved it since I took this picture.

I have just spent many long hours driving on American highways after a several year absence.  Some of the trips I have made recently include traveling from Crozet, VA to Hilton Head Island, SC.  Or from Hilton Head, SC to Hampton, VA, from Hampton, VA to New York City, NYC to Boston, Boston to Reading, PA, Reading back to Crozet, VA.  A day may involve 500, sometimes 600 miles on the road.  This has given me some time to think.  And one of my favorite topics upon which to muse are the differences between driving in America and driving in Kenya.

Here are some things I don’t miss about driving in Kenya now that I am driving in America.

  1. Speed bumps. Speed bumps in Kenya are cleverly made elevations of asphalt which not only are placed where one least expects them and are completely, totally unmarked to the extent of being almost perfectly camouflaged, they are also evidently designed to do maximum damage to the underside of one’s vehicle if one hits it at speed, which one almost always does because of the above mentioned characteristics.  Because no one in the entire country (I exaggerate only slightly) obeys any traffic law whatsoever (or more usually treats such laws as mere suggestions), the poor people charged with enforcing those laws have evidently decided that the best way to force mass compliance is to lay down monster speed bumps at irregular and maddening intervals on almost every road. I have seen speed bumps placed even on badly rutted, pot-holed, dirt roads, just in case the drivers of dodgy Toyota Corollas were tempted to burst out of a pot hole at blinding speed.  Speed bumps also appear shockingly on the major highways of the country.  This, admittedly, is to be preferred than the mass casualties that were occurring because pedestrians were refusing to use the expensive, over-engineered pedestrian crossings that required them to climb the equivalent of a three-story building before crossing the road.  Said pedestrians did their geometry and decided that a straight line (across the road) was better than a relentless zig zag up and then down.  Unfortunately their physics failed them, as approaching vehicles were often traveling at a greater speed than they appeared to be.  The solution?  Speed bumps.  Lots of them.  So now even the physics-challenged everyman can cross a superhighway with relative impunity.  And because (many) Kenyan drivers do not recognize the absolute sanctity of lanes, we now even have speed bumps placed on the side of the road and on side walks.  During our many traffic extravaganzas (see below), drivers are known to abandon both their senses and the proper lanes and create wholly new ones along the sidewalks and perilously close to that part of the road that I have always called the ditch.  This was often a brilliant maneuver on the part of the driver wanting to bypass long lines of stuck traffic.  Not so much however for the hapless pedestrian minding his/her own business on that part of the road created especially for them.  The solution?  More speed bumps, of course.  There are so many speed bumps in Kenya that no car has cruise control.  Just let that sink in.  There is no stretch of road in the whole country where one can travel without fear of suddenly having the engine of one’s car shifted unexpectedly and dramatically into the seat next to you.  This is challenging enough in the day time.  But at night things degenerate into pure roadway farce.  Perhaps 3 Kenyan speed bumps in 1000 have signs warning one of their approach.  An even more modest percentage still have their white paint warning markings visible; and these tend to wear off within the first week after application.  This means there is absolutely no way to detect a Kenyan speed bump at night until one is upon it.  I have discovered that I know an entirely alternative vocabulary reacting to this Kenyan reality.  The only way I have learned to deal with night time speed bumps is simply to memorize where they are.  This, of course, presents obvious problems when one is traveling to a new place, or if like me one’s memory isn’t what it used to be.  The end of the matter, for me at least, is this: I really don’t like speed bumps and their proliferation, they seem like some unregulated arms race between Kenya drivers and law enforcement.  But I recognize that they do save lives, even if they do damage cars and bruise heads.  I’m just glad I have a break from the exhausting job of scanning for them while driving in my home country.
  2. I don’t miss Night Driving in Kenya.  Not only are speed bumps unmarked and impossible to see at night, so is just about everything else on a Kenyan road when the lights go out.  Kenya’s exuberant system of bribe-taking ensures that a significant number of vehicles on the road should not be there.  And for some reason, a favorite way this gets manifested is that all manner of vehicles have no rear lights.  None.   This includes trucks of all size, ‘matatus’ (minibuses that have a dual identity as a necessary evil and a popular form of local transportation), ‘boda-bodas’ (two-three passenger three-wheeled vehicles that slithered out of the Indian Ocean from India like some mutant monster masquerading as a form of transportation), and ‘piki-pikis’ (motorcycles that give rides to one, two, three, and sometimes four with chickens and even goats).  I have come upon piki-pikis at night with no lights and whose drivers are wearing no helmets.  The only thing that comes to mind is that they must be depressed and are trying hard to end it all - I have no other explanation for such irresponsible madness.  And then there are the ubiquitous drunk drivers (some of them also driving vehicles with no lights…).  I am regularly driving roads at night with no street lights and having to dodge bicyclists who are dark people wearing dark clothes and riding bikes with no lights or even reflectors and who of course are not wearing helmets.  It’s terrifying to try and navigate this miasma of people mistakenly assured of their immortality.  It’s amazing that anyone actually survives being out on the road in Kenya at night.  No statistics of accidents or fatalities are produced by the relevant authorities (that I can tell).  But the loss of life and property, if the newspapers are to be credited, is much too high.  One life lost unnecessarily is much too high.  The best strategy I have found is simply to stay at home and wait till the sun comes up and one can see the speed bumps and when one doesn’t necessarily need lights.
  3. And I don’t miss the Traffic.  My adopted home village in Virginia of about 10,000 people has two lane roads, except when at the interchange for the interstate it expands to a four-lane dual carriageway (which being translated for my American audience means ‘divided highway’).  This seems about right.  Except for a couple of exceptions (some roads downtown, the A104, the Thika ‘Superhighway’- the one with the underutilized pedestrian crosswalks, and a few more recently constructed roads like the bypass), Nairobi is a city of two lane roads.  Nairobi also has somewhere between 3 and 4 million people.  There are lots of personal vehicles, plus the swarming masses of the various manner of public transportation options mentioned above.  And more trucks you can shake a stick at.  This means if anyone takes too long to turn across traffic - traffic jam!  So just imagine what happens when there is an accident!  This is usually what triggers the ‘let’s just make the sidewalk another lane of traffic’ behavior mentioned above, damn the speed bumps or, even more alarmingly, the bollards.  And then there is the rain.  Rain doesn’t happen too often in Nairobi.  But when it does, it seems to flip some under-researched panic switch in the minds of Kenyan drivers.  Said drivers revert to hive mentality and on cue immediately shut down and adopt non-rational roadway behavior.  This inevitably means that the traffic jam will congeal, and what was a smoothly flowing two lane road just five minutes ago immediately becomes five or six unmoving and snarling lanes of traffic.  Don’t ask me how they fit five or six lanes of traffic on a two lane road, but it is a wonder to behold. Unless one is in the middle of it trying to get home after a long day.  I know, every city, even American cities have their terrible traffic.  But none of these cities also have the wild card matatus, boda-bodas, and piki-pikis as well as maniacal trucks and buses to deal with. And this assumes that all the operators of the above-mentioned vehicle options are sober, which may or may not be a safe assumption.  Anyway, this sort of traffic is a daily occurrence for the people who live in Nairobi.  One does get used to it.  But I am grateful for a few months break.
  4. The last thing I am presently not missing about driving in Kenya are white trucks.  White trucks are everywhere on Kenyan roads.  They come in a range of sizes, some of them have been painted blue or green, just to confuse the uninformed observer.  Nevertheless they are all still at core white trucks.  White trucks are distinguished from other vehicles on Kenya roads in that they look like trucks but they have essentially a modified lawn mower engine.  This means that said white truck can only go about 30 mph when flooring it.  This is not such an issue in Nairobi when traffic is often not going more than 5mph because of the above-mentioned traffic issues.  But on the highways across Kenya, should one encounter a white truck on the road, which happens about every 2 minutes, its enough to drive one over the edge, so to speak.  For every two-mile long tail back creeping along at 20mph on a two lane Kenyan highway (and remember, all of them are 2 lanes), one will discover a white truck in the lead.  White trucks make traveling the pleasant Kenyan country highways and byways a nightmare.  As soon as one dispatches one white truck in the rear view mirror, there’s another coming quickly into focus.  And because almost all Kenyan roads outside the cities are two lanes, and because only a few have been equipped with climbing lanes, when it comes to coping with the proliferating white truck plague, we Kenyan drivers are on our own.  This means we are regularly dancing with death in our desperation to deal with the latest white truck apparition.  Because coming in the opposite lane, more often than not are drivers just as desperate as we are trying to get around their own white truck issue.  What this all means in practical terms is that, between all these white trucks and all those speed bumps, it takes MUCH LONGER to get anywhere by road in Kenya that it might otherwise take.  I will say this.  For all those considering taking up bungee jumping, wingsuit ‘flying’ or more ordinary parachuting out of small planes or even off-piste cliff skiing, if its simply the adrenalin rush you are after, you should just come to Kenya and rent a car for a week.                                                                                             

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Politics of Jesus

Mark 11:15-18
15On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.  17And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written:  “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”?  But you have made it a “den of robbers.”’
18The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, for the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

Every single house in Addis Ababa is surrounded by a wall.  The richer the occupant, the more elaborate the security.  The poor make their walls out of strips of tin and scraps of plastic and wood.  Older houses are surrounded by concrete block walls that have broken glass embedded in the cement along the top.  They may even have their walls topped by coils of razorwire.  The really important people have added electric fences to the tops of their walls.  Violent crime is an issue in Addis and Nairobi.  Home invasions happen and often don’t end well.  If people have stuff, they become increasingly obsessed with security, with keeping the wrong sort of people out.

I’ve come to see that our passage this evening is about walls, walls designed to keep the wrong sort of people out, and about Jesus’ absolute commitment to tear down these sorts of walls.  Judaism had increasingly become a religion of walls, walls put up to keep them safe and pure, walls designed to keep the wrong sort of people out.  I believe that their intentions were originally good.  From the very beginning, Israel had a fatal attraction to the gods of her pagan neighbors.  Again and again she broke the covenant that the one true God had made with her.  ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ God said.  But again and again, Israel chose not to be satisfied with God, not to be content with his promises.  Israel was happy to worship God, to offer the right sacrifices, to keep all the festivals.  But Israel wanted to add to her religion the ways of the nations around her.  So for most of her history, Israel’s religion was one of God +.  They supplemented their religion with alternative traditions, alternative practices, alternative gods and goddesses.  

We do much the same today.  The fact that you and I are here this evening means that you and I are nothing if not religious.  We go to church and do our religious duty.  But a lot of us this morning are not that different from Israel.  We, like Israel, are hedging our bets.  Some of us have a whole shelf-full of gods that we are busy bowing down to in addition to what we are doing here this evening.  But however religious we may seem, however spiritual our language may be, our religion of God + Stuff  ≠ Christianity.  A religion of God + the pursuit of pleasure ≠ Christianity.  These are the sort of issues that the Old Testament prophets are so vexed about.  Israel was determined to practice a religion of God + Asherah or Baal or Chemosh or Tanit or Molech.  They wanted to be like their neighbors.  But that’s not why God saved you from slavery in Egypt, the prophets said.  God saved you for himself.  God saved you so that he could bring glory to himself.  God saved you so that you could be the means by which the nations who were still in darkness all around you might see and understand and respond to the light of his love.  God didn’t save you so that you could then compromise yourself into irrelevence.  But Israel chose not to listen.  And after warning her again and again, judgment finally came, just like judgment will eventually catch up with you and me if we choose not to listen.  Israel and then Judah were destroyed.  The temple burned.  And a remnant was taken into captivity in Babylon.

When God kept his promise to restore his people from captivity and bring them back to the land, the remnant of God’s people decided that they would never make that mistake again.  And so they determined that they would never allow themselves to be contaminated or corrupted by the ways of the nations again.  And so they began building walls, walls to keep the contamination out, walls to make sure that nothing would get in that would make them impure, that would corrupt their worship of the true God.  And so the heart of their religion shifted from being God-centered to being holy.  Thus circumcision became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  Keeping Sabbath and eating kosher and keeping the feasts became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  Keeping the standards of personal purity became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  And so intense did the desire to maintain holiness become that those on the outside began to be seen as the problem and the enemy, to be shunned and avoided and driven away.  Judaism became increasingly a religion of walls.  Only the holy could come in.  Only the pure could draw near to God.  And the biggest symbol of all was the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.  The temple itself was surrounded by four sets of barriers.  The first wall you came to had signs posted on it that said, ‘No Gentiles past this point on pain of death.’  The next wall kept women from coming any closer.  The next barrier into the temple could be crossed only if you were a consecrated priest.  And in the temple itself was the room, the Holy of Holies where God himself was said to dwell.  It was cordoned off from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain, and only the high priest carrying the blood of a goat that was sacrificed for the sin of the people could enter once a year where he would make atonement for the sins of the people.

When God had appeared to the man that all Israel looked to as their founding father, when God appeared to Abraham, he said, ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you…and you will a blessing… and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ (Genesis 12:2-3)  But rather than be the means by which God blessed the nations, by the first century, Judaism was committed to keeping them out and driving them away.  They thought God’s blessing was meant for them and them alone.

Jesus came to destroy every barrier and knock down every wall.  It’s what got him crucified.  He breaks down the walls that kept out the lepers by healing them.  He breaks down the walls that kept out the demonized by setting them free.  He breaks down the walls that kept out women by including them in his circle.  And here in our passage, even the temple itself, the symbol of everything this religion stood for, the bastion of nationalistic holiness itself, comes under Jesus’ direct attack.  Jesus goes into the court reserved for the gentiles and drives out the money changers and overturns the tables of those selling animals for sacrifice.  It’s another parable, this time not spoken with words but spoken with actions.  But what does it mean?  I used to think that Jesus was launching a direct attack on corruption that had taken root in the worship that was going on at the temple, and that the application is that we shouldn’t sell raffle tickets or have a bookstore at church.  But I don’t think that Jesus actually cares about raffle tickets and bookstores.  I think Jesus himself actually explains what he means.  ‘And as he taught them he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?  But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”’ (Mark 11:17)   

But you need to know that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Den of robbers’ here in Mark’s gospel.  Literally, Jesus says, You have made my house a cave of bandits.’  Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing; he has chosen his words intentionally.  Nationalistic Jews hated the Gentiles, because they perceived that the Gentiles were a direct threat to their purity and therefore their existence as God’s people.  But they especially hated the Romans, because the Romans had conquered them, and the Romans were in charge of the holy land, the land that God had given to his people.  And so for the sake of God’s holy land, for the sake of God’s holy people, for the sake of their religion, the Gentile Romans had to be driven out at regardless of the cost. Just like the time of the Maccabees.  And so bands of nationalistic Jews had formed for just that purpose, to harry and harass the Romans, to foment rebellion and create the conditions whereby the showdown battle between God’s holy people and their enemies might finally take place.  These nationalistic Jews the Romans called bandits (today we might call them terrorists or insurgents), their hiding places were usually caves.  

Jesus is making the direct charge that the temple itself has become the focus of a movement to drive out the nations once and for all.  That’s not what this house is for, says Jesus.  God is not the God of one nation, He’s the God of all the nations.  Every barrier that you put up to protect your interests, your religion, your people, your culture, your holiness is a barrier set up against the will and purpose of God.  Can you begin to see why Jesus aroused such hostility.  Can you begin to see why they conspired to get rid of him?  Jesus was too much of a threat.  And so they work together with the Romans to silence the challenge to their agenda.  And by using the Romans to crucify this blasphemer, the Jews can score the additional propaganda points by claiming that this man is actually under God’s curse, because doesn’t the Law say, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’?  But they didn’t understand.  They didn’t realize that Jesus had all along intended to lay down his life in such a way, he intended to offer himself as a sacrifice, he intended to take upon himself the curse of God covenant that God’s people deserved because they had broken the covenant.  Jesus had systematically broken through almost every wall.  But one more wall remained, the biggest wall of all.  ‘At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.  And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…  With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’ (Mark 15:33-28)

The wall  created by our own sin separating us from God has been torn down.  Jesus himself offered his own blood as a sacrifice before his Father so that your sins might be covered, and forgiven, so that you might be forgiven and given a new life.  

But for those of us who are Christians, I think there is an even deeper challenge for us.  First century Judaism had lost its way.  God intended Israel to be the bridge of his love to all the nations.  They were concerned only for themselves, to protect their status and privileges and identity.  They had built walls.  They had forgotten that God had an agenda.  

We are a church in transition.  We have come from a homeland and now find ourselves here in this land.  We have done a very good job of surviving, even thriving.  But have we ever asked, why has God brought us here?  What might God’s agenda for us be?  Just to survive?  Just to be our own little Orthodox enclave? Have we forgotten that God has an agenda?  Are we busy building walls, creating our own private island of privilege and prosperity?  Have we become satisfied and complacent with a religion and with religious institutions designed to serve and meet our needs?  Have we become a cave of bandits?  Are we guilty of hijacking God’s agenda for the nations and spending his blessing on ourselves?  What walls need to come down in my life and your life and in this church today?  Who are the lepers today?  Who are the sinners and tax collectors today?  Who are the outsiders and foreigners today?  Our reason for existing as a church is so that God’s blessing may flow through us to them.  

Our walls may not be as obvious as the walls of Addis Ababa and Nairobi, but most of us have been just as industrious.  The question that faces me and you and us together is: Will we be a community of men and women passionately committed to God’s agenda for blessing the nations, God’s agenda for reaching his broken world with Christ and his gospel? Or will we simply be another club passionate about preserving our perks and comfort and privilege, our ethnic identity and our traditions?  But as you leave this place, be careful.  Taking seriously and wrestling with God’s agenda is a dangerous thing.  It is how people today hear God’s call.  It is why people, even today, might be willing to leave everything behind and become a missionary, even to places like Kenya.

A sermon preached at Vespers on Tuesday evening, November 28, 2017 at Holy Cross Seminary and Hellenic College in Brookline, MA.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

It Will Not End Well

I have just lost a friend.  I never met him.  I knew him because he somehow heard of me and sought me out and we started an off and on again correspondence that ended just before I returned to the US.  We had made plans to meet finally when I came to Tidewater later this month.  And now he’s gone.

Mark was still a young man, in his 40s, the father of two children.  He was a musician, much more accomplished than me, a composer whose works had been performed internationally.  He had gone through the excruciating demise of his marriage, which ended in divorce this past year.  I could relate.  We talked about it.  He was also a seeker after God.  When his Baptist faith no longer could sustain the gravity of his questions, he turned east and started attended the Orthodox Church.  Once again, I could relate.

In September, his femur snapped in the simple act of walking.  Since healthy bones don’t just snap, further investigation discovered cancer.  There was surgery, setbacks, infections.  And then, this morning, I learned that he died.

Random picture from the internet meant to serve as an illustration of the sort of thing Death does.

My American culture puts a brave face on death by choosing not to deal with it.  Christian America tries to paint death as a positive thing, where the deceased leaves this world of pain and suffering and goes to heaven to be with Jesus.  I have officiated scores of funerals where we cope with death by celebrating the life of the deceased.

But even a cursory survey of the New Testament and the witness of apostolic Christianity will reveal that this idea of escaping this world and going to heaven when we die has more in common with a platonized gnosticism than it does with anything Jesus and the Apostles ever taught. 

Jesus is doing something different, and it has to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the remaking, not just of humanity in His image, but all of creation, so that we become anew what God intended us to be.  And so the Gospel is doing something different, and it has not to do with providing ‘fire insurance’ so that we can be forgiven and thus ‘saved’, but with calling us to repentance and reconciliation with one another and with God, thus laying the existential foundation for the Church as the countercultural Kingdom of God, the beach-head of the transforming reign of Christ in this world.

But there is a major problem with this and every attempt to make sense of this world, and that problem is death.  Because as long as we die, it will not end well for any of us.  Whatever controversy exists about what sin is and who is a worse sinner than whom, the fact that every single one arguing the point will die means that rightness or wrongness on the question is actually a moot point - we are all in more trouble than we can imagine.

In spite of the denial, in spite of the way our health care and death industries try to sanitize what death does, none of us can escape the fact that death destroys us.  Already many of us are suffering the gradual breakdown of our bodies or our mental capacities, from which there is no climbing back out.  And it doesn’t stop with the cessation of of our hearts and brainwaves.  Death goes on to destroy our bodies.  That would be horrible enough, but death robs us of our most valuable possessions.  Some people might be thinking of the things that they are finally separated from at death - their clothes, their house, their bank accounts, their pleasures.  But I’m thinking of those intangible possessions that are even more precious to us - our relationships.  I will never again sit in my mother’s kitchen and have a conversation with her.  I will never get to witness my brother-in-law's joy and pride as he holds his grandchildren.  I will never know my own brother who died as an infant.  Death destroys our relationships.  And there is not only no more opportunity to enjoy the love we shared, there is also no more chance to fix the brokenness we might have inflicted that was left unmended.

It doesn’t end well.  For any of us.

I have been privileged to meet an octogenarian priest and his octogenarian wife this past week, both of them still active, both of them still sharp. They had five children who are now my age, and now their children’ children are having children.  It is a big, boisterous family, not without its share of drama, but about as close as I’ve seen to getting it right.  And even this godly man and this godly woman will have their long life cut short by death.  And the years will come and go, and then one day all that’s left are just names on someone’s genealogy, and then even they will be buried in the shifting sand of history yet to be, and forgotten.

As the Apostle Paul says, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all people.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19)

I grieve for my dead friend from a distance.  I see so much of myself in the mirror of his life.  And I am reminded how quickly it could all be gone.

Even this morning before I read the news, I wrote out my daughter’s name and phone number on the back of my business card and stuck it in the back pocket of my running shorts in case for some reason I didn’t make it back, a habit I started over 17 years of living in Africa.  It is that kind of world, and we are not guaranteed tomorrow, much less the next stride on my run.

So here are my takeaways. 
If my religion does not have an answer for my friend’s death, my spouse’s death, my child’s death, then it is not worth believing.

And if there is anything undone that I would regret leaving undone if I were to be called off the stage tomorrow, then get it done.  Have that conversation. Try yet again to be reconciled.  Do everything in my power to make it right.

Give thanks for the resurrection of Christ.  Our problem isn’t simply that we need forgiveness.  And I am grateful for the cross.  But forgiveness is useless unless we also have deliverance from what Paul calls ‘the final enemy’ - death.  The goal of our salvation is not some bodiless heaven.  Our goal is the New Jerusalem, for which we shall be raised from the dead and made anew like Christ himself, who is the New Adam.  

As the Apostle John says, ‘Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears.  But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.’ (1 John 3:2)

This is my hope and prayer for my friend who just died, whose broken body could no longer sustain his life.  The day is coming, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and will rise from their graves, however they may be scattered and lost and forgotten.  And we will hear our Lord call us by name.  And with new eyes we shall see him, and we shall stand and be like him, and we will live our new life forever in the new heavens and the new earth.

Death is terrible.  And we are all walking through the valley of its shadow.  But death will not have the last word.