Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Easter Foolishness

Easter Sunday 2018
Scripture Lesson:  John 20:19-31

With Easter falling on April Fool's Day, this year's Easter message explores what it means to be a fool.  Not a gosh-isn't-that-person-silly fool.  But a full on fool in the Biblical sense, the kind of person whose actions both tear apart community and sabotage their own growth.

The resurrection message of Easter shatters the foolishness of our world, and replaces it with something very, very different.

Listen to the Audio/Podcast here:

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Joys of Smugness

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 9.17.2017

Scripture Lesson: Romans 14:1-8

Apparently, I can be even more smug now.

The permission came via news of a recent study by Oxford University.   Not just any study.  An Oxford study, meaning it has it’s provenance in a University that will soon be celebrating its one thousandth anniversary.  This of itself seems grounds for smugness.  Oh, your town just turned one hundred and fifty?  How lovely!  I remember my alma maters one hundred and fiftieth.  It was eight hundred and fifty years ago.   

Hah.  Hah.  Hah.

I know my diet better for the environment, because that is precisely what the study at Oxford says.  A vegetarian diet uses less than half of the land, and produces half of the carbon emissions of a meat based diet.  If we were all vegetarian, it would save the planet, or so the headlines ran.  Seriously, how much more smugness potential could exist in a dietary form?

The study itself added significantly to my dietary smugness potential, for as a vegetarian, it is so very easy to feel the teensiest bit superior.  It’s been so long since I stopped eating meat that I’ve kind of forgotten when it was I stopped eating meat.  It was some time after I got married.  That, I remember.  So when anyone asks, I’ll say, well, I think it’s 18 years.  Sometimes I say 15 years.  Other times I say twenty.  

I know a diet of vegetables is healthier, because of course it is.  There is nothing healthier than being a vegetarian.  Now, one might say, oh, it’s too hard to be vegetarian.  What can you possibly eat?  Hah.  Hah, I say.  It’s easy to enjoy this healthful diet.  Take for example, pizza.  Pizza is vegetarian.  Pepperoni, not so much.  But pizza?  It’s fine.  Beer is also vegetarian.   As a pro tip, I will note that New York Super Fudge Chunk Chip ice cream is also vegetarian.  This remains true whether you eat but a spoonful or manage to down the whole pint. Whichever way, it’s vegetarian. See how easy it is?

And it’s so easy, so very easy these days to be vegetarian.  There are countless more things to eat, up to and including a nifty new veggie burger that supposedly tastes completely and exactly like meat.  More importantly, said veggie burger also smells like meat when you grill it, because the smell of meat on a grill on a perfect summer evening is just about the best smell on the planet.  Even after 18, 15, or twenty years of being vegetarian, I still salivate and mutter to myself “dear lord in Heaven, that smells good.”  What is this burger made of?  Well, a bunch of things, most notably a genetically modified yeast that has been tweaked by science to...for lack of a better way to describe it...bleed.  Actual blood.  Which is a little gross, but it apparently smells delicious when you eat it.

I know it’s kinder.  We get our meat from hideous factory farms, and even if we don’t, well, poor Bambi is still crying alone on the forest.  “What’s wrong,” says Thumper.  “Someone wasn’t a vegetarian,” says Bambi, at which point even more smugness occurs.

For all of this, it’s not that I’m lacking conviction that not eating meat is better.

Perhaps it’s because I have those three strikes against me that I find the Apostle Paul’s discussion of a form of early Christian vegetarianism so appropriate.  Here, though, what’s both strange and worth noting is that the smug folks weren’t the vegetarians.  They were the carnivores.  Paul, an omnivore himself, describes vegetable eaters as “weak,” which seems actually surprisingly smug and totally unfair, because, gosh darn it, I’m supposed to be the smug one.

The issue for early Christians who chose not to eat meat was not that they were concerned about lipids or carcinogens.  They weren’t worried about climate change.  Instead, the issue was consuming meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  This generally isn’t a concern when we stop by McDonalds or Red Robin or White Castle, but back in the first century, it was a thing.

Meat in the highly dynamic, pluralistic culture of the Greco-Roman world was often...well... “used meat.”    That meant that before it went for sale in the marketplace, the animal involved had been sacrificed at the altar of one of the almost countless gods of the ancient world.  While a small amount of the sacrifice would have been burned, most of the rest of an animal would have been either 1) consumed by the priests/priestesses of whatever god it was sacrificed to or 2) sold to the market as income for that particular temple.  

For some early Christians, this was a major issue.  They’d just converted to the movement that worshipped Yeshua Ben Yahweh, and they knew that they were supposed to only worship one God.   Having rejected all other gods, they were terrified that they might somehow be violating their relationship with Christ and their Creator if they had some BBQ ribs that had first been sacrificed to Ba’al.

Rome, standing as it did at the very heart of empire, was filled with temples and altars.  It was chock-full of ancient religions and mystery cults.  For some of the fledgling Christians in the town, there was very real fear that they might accidentally lose their Jesus connection if they ate pagan meat.

For those who were wiser and more well read, the whole idea was just absurd.  And it was to those others...and sharing their perspective...that Paul directed this section of his letter.  Paul, though a stranger to the Roman church, knew it by reputation.  It was comprised, or so we can assume from his writings to them, by the erudite...by philosophers, the wise, the aware, and those who were steeped in knowledge of how things really were.

Paul is not rejecting them.  In fact, Paul is showing that he believes exactly the same things.  For those whose grasp of the faith was strong, and who understand that from that strength they are free to eat and act and live in ways that stand beyond the grasp of others, Paul is clear: don’t be judgmental.

Remember, he softly chides, that there are things all of us disagree about.  Should we celebrate some of the sacred days of the Jewish tradition, or not?  Some think yes, and some think no, but what matters most is that we do what we do in a way that honors and respects those who do not share our position.

What he does not share is their willingness to condemn or mock those fledgling Christians who lack the depth of understanding that he shares.  He acknowledges that they are “weak,” sure.  But what he will not do is act and live in ways that subvert what faith the weak do have.  If you love others, you don’t live that way.  Possessing knowledge is not enough.  

The task of every Christian, even in disagreement, even when you know you’re right, even when your absolute correctness is utterly and empirically provable to any halfway sentient being, your task is to love and to build up.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Unsettling New

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
03.12.2017; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  John 3:1-17

Y’all know I like new things.  

I like the latest and shiniest, the cutting edge, the most sparkling and exciting, the objects that most radiate that new car smell.  Particularly if they are actually a new car.  Every new technological gadget, packed with doodads and gizmos and gimcrackery?  They’re like catnip to the seven year old boy who still dwells within this much, much older body.

And so, as a lifelong player of video games, who earned his spurs playing Space Invaders and Pitfall on a well-used Atari 2600, I’d prepared myself to throw in with the latest innovation in gaming:  Virtual Reality.  I’d sampled the headsets, and marveled at how radically this new tech changed the experience of gaming.  No longer were you staring at a screen.  Instead, you were in the game, as a perfectly rendered three-dimensional virtual world took shape around you.  You could be actually in the cockpit of a starfighter, at the helm of a futuristic battle-tank, or in the driver’s seat of a Group B Rally car.  

You can say, I am Batman, and looking around at what appears to be Arkham Asylum, it will seem to be true.

I tried it, and it was amazing, and I was bedazzled and certain: this is the next wave.   This is unlike any other experience I’ve had before.  I blogged about it, and wrote an excited article about it for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba.  Because what’s more new and cutting edge than writing an article about VR gaming for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba?

For Christmakkah in my household, I was surely going to get myself a set of VR goggles and controllers for my Playstation, settling into my basement, ready to encounter a new era of gaming.

Only, well, when they came out, they were the new and the latest and the greatest, and were snapped up immediately. I'd missed my chance, and I didn’t feel like paying twice the price to an opportunistic gaming scalper.  So I waited.  This was a good thing.

Because reviews started coming in, and something peculiar began to surface, something I’d noticed when I played.  The sense of immersion is so real that your visual cortex and your inner ear are telling your brain two entirely different things.  You’re sitting on a comfy sofa, says your inner ear.  You’re performing a reverse Immelman in a P-38 Lightning, say your eyes.  These two things do not line up, and this does not end well.  This new reality makes you nauseous.  Meaning, actually nauseous.  In a recent review of DIRT, one of my favorite driving games, at the International Gamers Network site, six out of seven reviewers felt sick after playing for fifteen minutes.  If I want to feel carsick, I don’t need to spend five hundred dollars for the privilege.  

New things, really new things, can often feel just as unsettling.  They don’t jibe with what we know, and rattle our sense of self, and leave us feeling dizzy and off balance.

Like poor, struggling Nicodemus.

We read his story, and there’s a tendency to go clucking and shaking our heads at him.  You get to meet Jesus, we might say, and yet you still don’t get it?  How do you not get it?  He must be thickheaded.  He must be easily confused, as he fumbles and stumbles about trying to grasp the message of this strange man from Nazareth.

We listen to him as he struggles to find his footing, bobbing about like he’s lost his equilibrium.  C’mon, Nick.  Get it together.

But standing at our point of imagined comfort with the message of Jesus, we may not grasp how deeply unsettling this encounter is, this encounter with the new.

What Nicodemus is experiencing is existential nausea, the yawning chasm between what he knew to be true and a reality that jarred and twisted against what he was certain was real.

What he would have known was the fundamental goodness of his tradition, of an ancient covenant with God that went back

Like him, we so easily get confused around change.  What are the changes that matter?  What do they even look like?  How do we find our balance, that place where we still know who we are relative to a different way of being?

Nicodemus struggles with this, as the strange man he’d heard of demanded his attention.  He wants to talk with him, but can’t do so in public without destroying his reputation.

There, in the night, the discussion they have is a remarkably rich conversation, as the baffled Pharisee asks question after question of Jesus, and Jesus responds.  None of it makes sense to him, and yet it does, and yet it doesn’t.

How can you be born if you’ve already been born?  How is that even possible?  What does it mean that we should be born "from above," or born "from heaven."  And if we are to be "born of water and the Spirit,” what does that mean?  The words are familiar from the ritual and tradition of Judaism, but they seem to point to something else.   Jesus talks, and the more he talks, the more his furtive night visitor becomes even dizzier.  

These words conveyed in John’s Gospel have a specific theological meaning, one that resonates with all of Christ's other teachings about the change he is bringing us. The birth that Christ describes has to do with what is "above," which in the context of John's Gospel indicates a connection with something of God.  It is a reality that has not yet happened, a state of being that is not yet a part of the world we inhabit.  Yet it is a reality that has happened, that is happening, right now in the moment.

This should be existentially unsettling, if we’re listening to it carefully.  It is meant to sound simple, to be composed of simple words that seem to make sense but then also don’t.

That, I think, is the key to Nicodemus's struggle.  He is desperately trying to imagine the story as being a repetition, a reiteration of the things that he already knows.  Jesus, on the other hand, is trying to kick him loose from that understanding.  God’s spirit shakes us loose from those old patterns of being, it is...when we encounter it...genuinely unsettling.  

Being born from above means being born into a reality...a sense of your own self...that you have not yet inhabited.  You don’t yet know what that is.  You’ve not ever experienced it.

The challenge we face is that we expect...with Nicodemus...that we will be able to just truck along as we have before as we stand in encounter with the Gospel.  We do not bring with us the same set of expectations.  But we have our own traditions...our love of wealth, our infatuation with power, our idolizing of self-interest.  We have our own traditions...the deep old lie of race, the strange violence of nation...which are unsettled by Jesus just as surely as those of any Pharisee.

When we hear the message of Jesus, a grace that is deep and simple and confounding, it should have that effect...not physically, but on the whole of our self-understanding.  

Until that moment, we have not yet really begun to be born from above, from that reality that represents the Reign of God that Jesus calls us towards.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.