Posted on: April 28th, 2011 “They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Last night I had some sweet time with my Bella, my seven year old daughter has who perhaps done more for my theology than anyone over the last few years. (See here and here.)

You see, Bella attends a private school locally which, while virtuous is so many ways (not least the truly rigorous education balanced with a good measure of fun and play) is populated with children and teenagers, who, quite frankly (and unlike what is the case at City School, where Bella attended in Austin), are on the upper-most rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Of course this is not all bad. We are unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to send our kids to All Saints, and often times money brings cultural richness. However, it does pose some real challenges.

Recently Bouquet and I have noticed that Bella is getting more pretentious, that her values are shifting a little, in some subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Last night we spent some wonderful time in the backyard around our outside fire pit (it was cold last night in Tyler!) and talked about things like being rich and being poor, and how some Christians in the past (namely the Puritans) prayed that God would spare them from both extremes.

With that conversation ringing in my mind, I spent some time this morning in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The passage from Eagleton which really hit me aroused in me the intensity I often feel (I am tempted to use the word “anxiety,” but I believe that Jesus has risen from the dead!) when I think about Bella’s future in this culture of narcissism, nihilism, and non-sustainable consumerism.

It is difficult for me not to think that Bella (to say nothing of her own children) will grow up in the twilight of the western culture and civilization. Such cultural decline in the west is not bad, but it will be painful for many.

And it reminded me of a conversation she and I have had over the last couple of years about television, internet, and other forms of media. She has questioned Bouquet’s and my privleging of PBS over other television networks, including our decision not to purchase a version of cable TV service other than the bare minimum (which, by the way, we purchased for the sole reason of obtaining PBS, not available here without a basic cable package).

When explaining to her my suspicion and aversion to various forms of media and entertainment such as signing up for free videos from, etc., she found one argument particularly compelling:

“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Through email marketing, pop-up ads, irritating and vile commercials … they are just trying to sell you stuff.

I’m so grateful that she found this argument compelling, and it made her question and begin to “see through” the glitz and glamor of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. Such attraction is full of illusion and deception, she began faintly to grasp.

Born in 1972, I still find it a rather novel concept that media entertainment is about profits, not art. And yet, this is more and more the case, and this is a part of the larger “narrative” I want to inculcate into my daughter.

If I were to take a month off to develop this narrative one text on which I would rely would be the following quotation from Eagleton, which reminds me that:

– Conservative American culture is frequently naively complicit in supporting some of the very worst tendencies and underlying forces in our culture, forces in which the principalities and the powers are utterly owning us. For example, the assumption that form and content are able to be separated without damaging content (examples: Wal-Mart, megachurches, contemporary music).

– Subtle mistakes at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the west are now rearing their full-grown, ugly heads, with demonic furor. (example: the nation-state is now a merely surveillance organization to promote the untrammeled profitability of global capitalism.)

– This narrative (which one might call post-modern) of resisting worldliness through a recognition of the baselessness of consumerism needs to be developed more and more rigorously families and churches, such that it is foundational to how we think and live. That is, only the church has the resources to withstand and resist the onslaught of late capitalist nihilism which will continue to come down the pike, until, to adapt a phrase from the late Neil Postman, we entertain and consume ourselves to death.

– Bouquet and I need to work hard to develop real, authentic relationships between our family and those who are economically struggling.

… the chief threat to enlightened values today springs not from feng shui, faith healing, postmodern relativism, or religious fundamentalism. As usual, it springs from some of the fruits of Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy. The economic individualism of the early, enlightened middle classes has now spawned into the vast corporations which trample over group and individual rights, shaping our destinies without the slightest popular accountability. The liberal state, founded among other things to protect individual freedom, has burgeoned in out time into the surveillance state. Scientific rationality and freedom of inquiry have been harnessed to the ends of commercial profit and weapons of war. One vital reason why the United States has declared open-ended war on terror is to ensure a flow of open-ended profits for a large number of its corporations. An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Rational or enlightened self-interest brings in its wake the irrationality of waste, unemployment, obscene inequalities, manipulative advertising, the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and the dependence of whole livelihoods on the random fluctuation of the market. It also brings with it colonialism and imperialism, which scarcely sit easily with enlightened values. Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet. In claiming the world as our own, we find that we have ended up possessing a lump of dead matter. In asserting our free spirits, we have reduced our own bodies to pieces of mechanism. – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, p 71 – 72.

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Posted on: April 23rd, 2011 Tomorrow: Death (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

John 13:1-15

Maundy Thursday – A

“Tomorrow: Death”

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

Would you take the day off from work and be with your children? Would you clear your schedule so that you could be alone with your husband or wife for several hours? IF you are a single person, would you try to make some sort of statement, maybe create some art, paint a picture, of what is most important to you?

In tonight’s story from John 13, Jesus has realized that his hour has come. He realizes that the time has come for his exodus (as Luke’s Gospel puts it), his departure from the world and back to his father.

You see, from the beginning of John’s Gospel John has been telling us that God’s glory would be revealed in the climax of Jesus’ life.

In John 2, for example, right after Jesus turns water into wine (and note that both water & wine re-appear for us tonight, both in our Gospel lesson and in the rituals we perform tonight) his well-intentioned mother wants Jesus to display his glory.

And how does Jesus respond? He looks at his mother and tells her, “My hour has not yet come.”

My hour has not yet come. The hour for my glory, the glory of the Father, to be displayed and lit up for all to see … has not yet come.

This same thing happens again and again in John. People look at Jesus, and they begin to get a little glimpse of his glory, and then the text says, “but his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 7: “No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 8: “No one could arrest him, because his hour had not yet come.”

But then in chapter 12, right before tonight’s story, something new happens. Out of the blue, some Greeks, some Gentiles, show up and want to hang out with Jesus. Then, right at that moment, Jesus realizes that his hour has finally come.

And so we come to this fateful night. He knows his hour has come. He knows that his entire life and ministry and all the conflict which has been provoked … he knows that it is coming to a head, and he knows it is coming to a head, tomorrow.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

His disciples were expecting a normal Passover meal. They had done this before, and here they were with their rabbi, and they were about to enjoy this annual ritual meal together.

And then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He gets up from the table, disrobes, puts a towel around his waste, and begins to wash their feet.

His disciples are dumbfounded: what is he doing? Not only is this not part of the Passover liturgy, but … um, rabbis don’t do this sort of thing. In fact, not even slaves do this!

In that world, slaves were the absolute bottom rung on the social ladder, but even they were given the dignity, even slaves had rights. It was unlawful for a man to require a slave to wash your feet. That was just too demeaning, too gross, too debasing.

And yet, this is precisely what Jesus does. And for his disciples, it does not compute. His action will not fit into their grid, it will not fit into their categories.

Why not? Why didn’t they get it? Why didn’t they get what Jesus was doing?

Yes, his behavior is unexpected for a Passover meal. Yes, this behavior is bizarre to say the least for a rabbi. And so they were sort of shocked & flabbergasted.

But the scriptures lead us to a deeper reason as well, a deeper reason for their lack of comprehension. In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Nuehaus puts it this way:

“To those accustomed to living in a world turned upside down, setting it right cannot but appear to be turning it upside down.”
As Jesus began to perform the most grotesque act they could imagine, it looks like the world is being turned upside down.
But that is because they themselves are living upside down, living in an upside down world.
And so are we. You and I, like them, live in a world where might makes right, where the appearance of success matters most, where weakness and dependence are shunned and excluded and ridiculed.
But Jesus comes, he does this, and he is showing us true reality. He is showing us how things are in his family. He is showing us what life is like with his father and the spirit. He is showing us how to live.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow night, what would you do?
Tomorrow night, Jesus is going to die.

And what does he do? He humbles himself, he lowers himself, to the level beneath the slave. He gives up his rights. He serves his friends. He serves you and me. He served us to the point of death.

And then he looked at them, he looks at us, and he says, “Go and do likewise.”

Tonight, we will ritually participate in this act of service. Even though it is not nearly as scandalous for us as it was for them, it’s still kind of awkward.

As you do this, join me in ask God to make us humble. Ask God to make you loving.

But more than that, I invite you to do something else. I invite you to thank him for his humility. Thank him for turning the world right side up.

Receive his love for you.

You know why? You can never serve others until you let him serve you. You can never love others until you let him love you.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?

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Posted on: April 19th, 2011 Questioning our Worship (Part VIII): “C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ?”

This is part 8 of a 10-part series.

Over the years as I have had an ongoing conversation with Isabella, my seven year old daughter who is a budding theologian, about what is going on in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, particularly in “the service of the table,” the communion service.

After all, Bella and I wonder, what is going on with the bread? Why do we call it “the Body of Christ?”

One way we have discussed this, which has been particularly fruitful and enjoyable, is in terms of the “three givings or gifts of the Eucharist.”

First God gives to us, the human race also known as “Adam,” the good gifts of grain and grape, and this is the first “giving,” the first gift, the gift of creation.

Now grain and grape are good, but God has asked us (see Gen 1:28-30) to take them, and to make them even better, to transfigure them, bringing them “from glory to glory.” And so, we, human beings created in God’s image, take the grain and the grape, and we transfigure them into bread and wine. In obedience to God, we (“Adam”) cultivate the earth.

Now, in the Eucharist, what do we do with this bread and wine? We don’t eat and drink it, at least not yet. What we do is we give it back to God. Think about all the language of “offering” in the Communion service: “… these, thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee …”; “… and here we offer and present unto thee …” This language of “offering” brings out the oblationary aspect of the Eucharist.

And this is the second giving, the second gift. God receives our gift and then, what does he do with it?

Now, bread and wine are good. But God takes these gifts, he transfigures them, bringing them to a better state of glory, and now they “become” something even better: the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, keep in mind that, historically, there are three different senses of “body of Christ.” There is 1) the “typological body” (the soma typicon) which was “literally” nailed to a cross and “literally” buried in the grave, etc. Then there is 2) the “true body” (corpus verum) which is the Church, the living members of the Body of Christ. Finally there is 3) the “mystical body” (corpus mysticum) of the consecrated bread of the Eucharistic Rite.

Is this consecrated bread “really” the body of Christ? It is, indeed. It is his body because is it ritually connected to his “typical body” and to his “true body” the Church, the “living stones” gathered at the feast. Because of the first two “bodies of Christ,” the bread is more than just bread. It is a sacrament of the whole world, already but not yet transfigured and transformed into the very life, the very body, of Christ.

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Posted on: April 13th, 2011 Questioning our Worship (VII): Why Sacraments?

This article is part 7 of a 10-part series.

In his magisterial For the Life of the World, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann begins his articulation of the sacramental life with the statement, “Man is what he eats.”

Think about it. Even our narrative of God’s work in the world begins with a story about eating. The man and the woman in garden (imagined collectively in Genesis 1 as “Adam”) are somehow restless, somehow wanting more than they have received. And so what do they do? They eat. They grasp after some thing God had made, and they put it in their mouths, chew it, swallow it, and assimilate it into their very bodies, their very selves.

Fast forward to the end of our story, the last two or three chapters of St. John’s Apocalypse. Here again, what do we see? We see an amazing scene of a feast. In fact it is the very best kind of feast: a wedding feast! What better reason to celebrate than the joining of a man and a woman in the deepest possible love, the deepest possible union.

So we see, in the beginning and end of our story (not to mention all along the way in between: see Isaiah 25:6 as one of countless examples), that the idolatrous, gluttonous eating of Adam has been transfigured into the faithful, joyful, satisfying celebration of the New Adam, together with his Body and Bride.

In light of all of this, can it be any surprise that at the center of our lives lived before God, we find ourselves eating at a table with our brothers and sisters? More is going on at that weekly feast called Holy Communion than time or space permits me to develop right now, but suffice to say that, since God’s salvation (think “shalom”) is for our whole selves, body and soul, it is only fitting that he put his abundant, indestructible life into us not only through words and ideas, but also through food. Or, better (as Peter Leithart has written in his Blessed are the Hungry), through “love made food.”

And when it comes to Holy Baptism, we find a similar reality. God made us not only as individuals, but as members of community. As I told the youth confirmands recently, we are like a jigsaw puzzle, designed to “fit together” and to make a beautiful mosaic which is bigger than any one of us. In light of that, of course it makes sense that God would give us a ritual which includes us in God’s love not just as individuals, but as a larger community, called to “image” God’s own communal life, his loving dance, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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