February 29, 2008

who has the flashlight?

I noticed this morning that - at least in John 9 - Jesus puts a qualifier on his claim to be the "light of the world." "As long as I am in the world," Jesus says, "I am the light of the world."

It got me to thinking about who or what is the light of the world now? I mean I guess the obvious answer is the Church catholic - but as one on the inside of that particular group it seems cheap of me to claim that we have the light. So where else might light come from? Who has the flashlight this evening?

It might be to some a clever restatement of the Church catholic (universal) to say the following, but I dare say it is not. I think the flashlight is being carried by every person who, to the best of there abilities and to the glory of God, are trying to live a life of faithfulness to God. That means every person who takes seriously love of God and love of neighbor. I must be quick to add, though it'll sound Pharisaical, that not every member of the Church catholic, or everyone who professes to be Christian, fits into this category of flashlight carrier; light of the world.

It is not for me to judge who lives up to it and who does not, but suffice it to say there are plenty who do not, but the vast majority do. This morning, as the sun rises above the education building and begins to shine in my office window light is on my mind. This morning, having just read the long invitation to Confession in Morning Prayer Rite I, I wonder how often I live up to carrying the flashlight? It is not for me to judge who gets a flashlight - just to make sure I'm doing all I can to deserve mine.

February 28, 2008

how freakin' long!

I think the opening words of the Lord in the Samuel reading define how I hear the remainder of the lessons for this Sunday. "The Lord said to Samuel, 'How long will you grieve over Saul?'"

Father Keith preached a few weeks ago about our God who is constantly running away from us. Not in the sense that God wants nothing to do with us, but that God does not stand still; God is always moving toward the in-breaking of his kingdom. As soon as we are comfortable, God is ahead of us beckoning that we follow.

I think the words of God to Samuel are the words of God-out-ahead. And they could be repeated over and over again in the lessons. Psalm 23 could begin, "how long will you worry about your physical condition?" The Ephesians reading, "how long will you sit in darkness?" And the Gospel lesson could have it at least twice, to his disciples and to the Pharisees, "how long will you seek direct blame for the bad things in life?" Or "how long will you hold onto to your old way of understanding?"

Much has been made in the media - traditional and otherwise - of the Pew Foundation study that showed that the journey of faithful people is much more fluid than it once was. The Senior Pastor over at The Church for Starving Artists has two insightful posts on what the results of this study might mean for us - here and here. I commend them to you. Anyway, what I'm hearing today is one of those rare times when every lesson ties together (though this week they make no sense with the Collect) - God is out there wondering, "how long?!?" Are we able to hear Him? Are we willing to change our preconceived notions? How long will we remain blind?

February 27, 2008

redfining sabbath

When I think of how the Sabbath was honored and kept holy in first century Palestine I think of things like spitting, mixing up mud, and washing being in the "allowable actions" category. Things like holding court proceedings, well those I think of as being "not allowable actions." So it surprises me in the story of the man blind from birth (mbfb) that the Pharisees go through the elaborate actions of calling witnesses and deliberating whether Jesus has broken the Sabbath on the Sabbath.

I read the story of the mbfb as a large indictment against the Pharisees' narrow interpretation of the Law; our way or the highway. Even in Jesus' answer to his disciples, "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work" I read as a redefinition of Sabbath; it is not a day of the week but rather a way of living. Though it is most certainly Saturday morning when Jesus mixes up the mud and heals the mbfb it is not the Sabbath as the sun has not yet set on his calling from God. Rest is not an option for Jesus as this time; the sun is still high in the Friday afternoon sky for Jesus. It is not until he dines with his disciples on Passover that the Sabbath will come for Jesus.

Yet for the Pharisees, by their strict definition, the Sabbath is from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. So their pseudo-trial on what I can only assume to be Saturday afternoon is curious. They seem to be breaking their own law in order to condemn a man for breaking said law. It makes not sense; which seems to be the point. God is beyond Law; even over and above the 10 Commandments when necessity arises. The immediacy of this man's condition and the teaching opportunity made available by healing the mbfb is too perfect for the God-man to worry about what day of the week it is. Instead, Jesus heals the mbfb physically AND spiritually.

Jesus redefine Sabbath here. He calls into question human interpretation of God's Law/God's Will and says, God will make it clear to you what is right and good; do those things, live in the light, and rejoice. And still, the Pharisees remain blind.

Readings for Lent 4A, RCL

As usual, are here.

February 26, 2008

seeking him out

We didn't have our Lutheran friends at Lectionary group this morning, and they were sorely missed. We didn't get to hear from their perspective how great a text this week's Gospel lesson is for grace. Twice in a chapter Jesus seeks out the man blind from birth. The man doesn't call for Jesus like some do. The man doesn't come to him at night like Nicodemus did. Rather, Jesus sees that he is the topic of conversation and uses him to bring God glory.

What I find interesting, but am unsure what I'll do with it, is that Jesus seeks him out a second time. I'm not sure of it, but I don't think that happens any other time. Seems like it'll preach that a) being healed/discipled by Jesus won't be easy and b) he won't disappear on us - he will continue to seek us out; even when we are removed from the synagogue (whatever that may be for us).

Anyway, it's late, and dinner is ready, so I'm off. More tomorrow.

Sermon for Lent 3A

We often think of this story as that of a typical un-churched or de-churched person. Quite frankly, the story of the woman at the well is more the story of a church going, God loving person; she was living her faith to the best of her abilities; the only way she knew how. She isn’t really a seeker. She didn’t come to Jesus asking for Spiritual guidance, Jesus came to her asking for a drink of water. It is easy to assume, thanks to John’s use of detail, that this woman is in some way a very sinful person - heck she’s living with a man after five failed marriages – but judging from her theological understanding it seems to me that she is, in fact, a victim of her circumstances. Her husbands have either died or divorced her; she, it seems, has had little, if anything to do with it – except maybe having been educated in theology; that would certainly be grounds for divorce in first century Palestine.

So we’ll assume, for sake of argument, that this woman is a devout Samaritan, worshipping God to the best of her ability the only way she knows how. She arrives at the well at noon because she is tired of the abuse she gets from the other women who seem to have it all together. They haven’t been married five times, and they feel they can look down their noses at this woman. So she quits the game. She chooses to remove herself from their mockery. She heads to the well at noon. Today, however, her plan has backfired. Instead of avoiding a mess, she finds at the well a man, and not just any man, but what appears to be a Jewish man. “This can’t end well,” she must think to herself, “but I’ll keep my head down, get my water, and get home.” Her newly revised plan fails when Jesus, thirsty from a hot morning on the road, asks her to draw him a drink from the well. Avoidance is now impossible – she must engage this man, this Jewish man.

So our devout Samaritan woman begins a conversation with this man. Most certainly she is hesitant at first, “Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans, things like water cups and conversation”[1] But as the conversation goes on it becomes clear that this isn’t any normal conversation – she has met someone special. By the end of their time together she is starting to think the unimaginable, she has met the Messiah! She leaves her water jar behind, rushes back to town, and pounds down the doors of the people she has tried so hard to avoid. Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” She still isn’t sure, her question in Greek shows the expectation of a negative answer. “This can’t be the Christ, can it?” Still, something has changed within her, her eyes have been opened and she must share the news. And it all started with a question.

Jesus asked her a question that has no deep meaning behind it, “Will you give me a drink?” How often in life do relationships begin with a simple question? It happens all the time. One thing Cassie and I have noted since we moved down here is the “classic Alabama over share.” You know it. You go into the Winn-Dixie to grab a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. You finally arrive at the front of the cashier line and say, “how are you?” to the woman smiling behind the check stand. In my experience growing up in Pennsylvania and living in Virginia the expected answer is, “I’m good” or “I’m fine” or “OK”. But here, it is so very different. “I’m exhausted, it has been a long day. My two year-old was up at three with a fever and rash. Then I had to be up at 6 to get the other two ready for school. I had a doctor’s appointment, then I got here at noon and I work ‘til eight.” I now know more about this woman who is ringing up my groceries than half the people I graduated from high school with. There is something healthy about the “Alabama over share.” I am forced to actually engage the people with whom I occupy this space. I can’t go around ignoring the world around me, and in these encounters I am changed. Slowly I have come to understand that the woman behind the cash register isn’t just slow, but she is, in fact, exhausted – I’ve learned to cut her some slack – even pray for her as I wait. And it all started with a question

Jesus lived a life of questions. He asked questions. He welcomed questions. He rarely answered someone without asking another question. It is a life few of us understand these days; questions have gone out of style. Instead, with our 24 hour news cycle we live in a world of answers. From Kindergarten on up we are taught to receive answers rather than to ask questions. Our teachers impart knowledge upon us. Our preachers stand up and tell us how to interpret texts and how to live our lives. Our televisions are full of “experts” who have all the answers from who will win the Super Bowl to how to end the war in Iraq. Nobody is asking questions because everybody has all the answers. But Jesus, Jesus asked questions.

It seems clear from this story that a primary spiritual practice is question asking. Our devout Samaritan woman asks questions, “How can you ask me for a drink?” Where can you get this living water?” Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Could this be the Christ?” She isn’t afraid to have her opinions challenged. She asks questions not really expecting to be changed by the answers. Her life experience is not about having the answers but about asking the questions. Her reward is a life changed forever – our devout Samaritan is now a believer of the Christ and an evangelist for the way.

Each of us has the opportunity to be changed in a similar way. In asking real questions we are forced to look at our underlying assumptions. We end a sedentary life of answer downloading and begin a quest for knowledge by asking questions. It is dangerous and scary to leave our comfortable life of answers behind. The possibility of change is not always a happy one, but in our Gospel lesson today it is clear that sitting still in our easy answers is not an option. The answers we found early on in our faith journey are not the be all and end all – God has much more to teach.

Some years ago, writer Eugene Peterson found an analogy for this battle between couch potato faith and the spiritual quest in, of all things, a Winnie the Pooh story. In one of the many tales from the Hundred-Acre Woods, Christopher Robin and company decide to set out one day in search of the North Pole. At one point along the way, young Roo falls into a stream and needs to be rescued. Pooh Bear eventually uses a long pole to fish his friend out of the water. Once this emergency had passed, the animals stand around and discuss what had just happened.

As they are talking, Christopher Robin notices that Pooh is standing there with the rescue pole still in his paw. "Pooh, where did you get that pole?" "I just found it earlier," Pooh replies. "I thought it might be useful." "Pooh," Christopher Robin says excitedly, "the expedition is over! You have found the North Pole!" "Oh," says Pooh, "I did?" Eventually Christopher Robin sinks the pole into the ground and hangs a flag on it with this message: "The North Pole, Discovered by Pooh. Pooh Found It." Then they all go home again, satisfied that this quest was successful. This story, Peterson suggests, bears some resemblance to the way many people in recent years have gone about their various spiritual quests.

People are in search of something quite grand but, like Christopher Robin and company, they seem quite willing to label the first thing they find as being "it." They are hungry and thirsty for something more, so they go to Barnes & Noble, stumble on some book and they think they've arrived at their destination. They see that someone has slapped a label of spiritual authority onto this work--you can, after all, always find someone with a "Rev." in front of his name or a "Ph.D." after her name, to write glowing blurbs for such books. And suddenly, like Christopher Robin's flag, people think this label authenticates this version of “THE ANSWER”

One estimate claims that there are nearly 10,000 different books currently in print that dole out spiritual advice. Many of these have been best-sellers over the years, which means that some of the same people are buying different books all the time. This is great news. The spiritual pole they confidently labeled as "the North Pole" six months ago must not have turned out to be the end-destination after all. So they go out in search of another, asking new and different questions hoping for fresher different answers.[2] The quest for the North Pole goes on.

Our devout Samaritan woman, despite her best efforts to avoid being changed, stumbles upon a man to whom questions are quite comfortable. In the end, her life was forever changed. Where is your quest taking you? What questions are you feeling compelled to ask? Are you willing to be changed by the answers? And then, instead of sitting comfortably in the answers, will you step out again by asking new and different questions?

Our devout Samaritan woman set out for the well at noon expecting a day like any other. She was comfortable despite her circumstances, she made do. But in a question; in a chance meeting her life changed. Where will you meet Jesus? What questions will he ask? What questions do you have for him? How will your life be changed? Be on the lookout, Jesus might be thirsty today at your well.

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-24-third-sunday-in.html

[2] The article at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php saw this as a negative, but I have taken their story and spun it the other direction. Sermons are so much fun!

February 22, 2008


That strange wording in the story of the thirsty Israelites that they were traveling in stages is on my mind today. I am currently sitting on a hard wooden pew in the second of three business sessions for the diocese of the central gulf coast. This is a stage that has no water, I repeat, no water!
Why did you call me here to this place called ordained ministry to kill me with church nerds!
This is not a nice thing for me to say, and I realize that, but to we all have the things which feed us and those that do not.
And while this stage is not a good one for me, for many gathered here it is a rare chance to see the larger church at work. It is a great opportunity to celebrate the ministry of this diocese and to gather and meet one another.
Anyway all that to say life is full of stages and to each one these stages mean different things. I'll look for water from some one else today.

February 21, 2008

Just the Harvester

I'm not sure where in the history of interpretation it happened, but at some point it became easy to claim that the Samaritan woman at the well was a very sinful woman. Having been married five times and now, gasp, living with a man who is not her husband we picture her with a tattoo across the small of her back, doing Jager-bombs, waiting for some handsome rich man to approach her at the bar. I have to ask the question, "where do you read that?" It seems to me that this woman is far from trailer trash and she isn't the whore history has made her out to be.

She is well versed in her faith. She is follower of the Samaritan version of the worship of YHWH and she knows her theology. She understands the dispute between her people and the Jews. She knows the history of her faith. She awaits a Messiah. Heck, she has a better understanding of her faith than many seminary graduates do of theirs.

I'm also not sure where in the history of interpretation it happened, but at some point it became easy to claim that Jesus was sower, grower, and reaper in this quick exchange at the well. Meeting the aforementioned sinful woman, he tells her of the coming Messiah, calls her to repentance, and accepts her heart as she accepts him as her personal Lord and Savior. I have to ask the question, "where do you read that?" It seems to me that Jesus has stumbled across a woman who has a long history of faith in YHWH, a woman whose heart God had been working in for a long, long time, a woman seeking to know God more/better.

Jesus, in this case, is just the harvester. He has found a woman ripe with the Spirit and proceeds to pluck the fruit from the vine and make glorious wine out of her faith. This is a fantastic story of one persons journey to faith through the work of the whole of the Trinity. She has known God the Father for years. God the Spirit is in her heart continuing the work and making her very thirsty indeed. And when God the Son shows up as a very human Jesus - all he does is point out how his living water might quench her thirst for good.

I know that across the world on Sunday sermons will be preached across various interpretations, utilizing thousands of hermeneutics, filled with exegesis and eisegesis. I'm ok with it because I know that week to week my sermons are just one opinion among many. I just wonder if we might try to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Let's not take the easy way out. Let's do some work, let's open a few books, and preach to the best of our abilities to the glory of God.

February 20, 2008


I think that the words of the Israelites to Moses could constitute my worst nightmare in ministry. As a self-described "emerging Christian" I have dealt myself a life of bringing people to new places - in worship, in theology, in Christian practice, in life - and I know that some of those new places will prove themselves lifeless - without food, water, sustenance. And so to hear the Israelites ask cry out to Moses, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" well it makes me itchy. Someday, somebody will ask me a similar question, "Why did you bring us out of our BCP worship to kill us and our children with whatever this crap is?"

This line of thought is not helped by the generations of worry steeped within me. I come from a long line of "what-if?" people. "Why then am I a priest, and an "emerging" one at that?" you may ask. Because I'm an idiot... but that's another issue.

While I know that I could worry myself into secular employment I also have Romans 5.1-11 to keep me comfortable. Especially that line "we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Hope does not disappoint us! Thanks be to God! We all take risks in life in the name of hope. I hope to one day move our church and our world past petty left v. right arguments and into the Kingdom of God. I know that I will never get there. But nonetheless, my hope will not disappoint me because I am certain that even a half step in that direction will be for the good. So worry or not, I keep on that path; assured by the Spirit that hope will not disappoint.

As the stages of life continue on; there will be failure, suffering, the need for endurance, and tests of character, but in the end there will be hope. I am thankful for that today.

Plugging Tony Jones

While I do not agree with everything Tony says, I appreciate his candor and the spirit with which he argues. So I pass along to you two recommendations.

1 - Read The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier - I have yet to pick it up, but have read chapter one and it is grand. Please pick up a copy.

2 - Read his two-part (for now) post on Jim Wallis' God's Politics blog. It is an insightful look at why "left v. right" is being rejected by a new generation of Christians. Part 1 is here; Part 2 there

I had the pleasure of working with Tony at a National Cathedral Event last May where he laid out his 10 Dispatches and I really enjoyed them. If you are at all interested in the two taboo subjects of yesterday's post; politics and religion; you must read Tony Jones' latest stuff.

February 19, 2008

When did questions stop being OK?

We spent a lot of time this morning in our Lectionary Group thinking about the way in which Jesus approaches the Woman at the Well and in turn the way in which the Woman approaches her neighbors. They both come with questions (I think the NRSV is wrong in making Jesus' request for water a command). We then began to ponder when questions stopped being OK in the church. Moses had questions. The Prophets had questions. The Disciples had questions. The Churches to which the Epistles were written had questions. "Orthodoxy" is formed out of questions; the nature of Jesus, the Trinity, the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth, etc... it all comes from questions.

So when exactly did questions stop being OK? Did politics and religion start being taboo subjects on the same day? Did we lose the ability to ask questions and disagree in community by some evolutionary hick-up? Because it seems clear in the story that we are to approach one another with questions. There are no experts in faith; we are all stumbling along. Just as Jesus does not assume himself better than the woman; so too as she rushes back to town, she does not assume that she's got it right; her experience of the Messiah (could it be, no, well, no) is not the only experience; but it is all she knows. She approaches her neighbors with a sense of vulnerability; "this couldn't be the Messiah, could it?" She doesn't have all the answers, and neither do we.

But how much damage is done by those of us who claim to know it all; to have the corner on God's love? So much it pains me. So much that I have done in my ignorance. When did questions stop being OK? Let's take it back. Let's make questions OK again. Let's approach life with questions, not answers. It'll make us vulnerable, but it'll be oh so worth it.

Readings for Lent 3, RCL, A


February 14, 2008

The Wind

I am thinking today about that line from Jesus about the wind and the Spirit. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

As I sit in my office in the former rectory of St. Paul's Parish, Foley, AL this is ringing very, very true. As I think about Cassie's 8 month struggle to find a job (which continues to this day) this is ringing very, very true. As I pray for the class of 2008 at VTS as they await GOE redeux and placement information this is ringing very, very true. The wind most certainly blows where it chooses. We hear the sound of it, and from time to time manage to use it to our advantage, but the best we can hope for is for it to take is in relatively the right direction. All we can do is have our sails ready and our ship pointed toward the goal hoping that whatever direction the wind blows today is in congruence with our understanding of God's will.

And even when it isn't we can give thanks that the wind blew at all, and that we were willing and able to be moved, even if it seems as if we are headed backwards.

On a similar yet unrelated topic; this passage also makes me think about the buoys of orthodoxy that the tradition has setup for us. The wind takes us within those buoys, but more often than not really surprises us with how far to one side or the other it might take us. Anyway, the wind has my attention today. May we each be ready for it to push our sails, no matter the direction.

February 13, 2008

life is full of middle ways

This week, I'm thinking about those of us who reside in the middle between Mr. Ya-but, Nicodemus, and Mr. what-ever-you-say-God, Abram. Of course both stories are charicatures of these men; Abra(ha)m was not always so willing to ask "how high?" when God said "jump." Neither, as we see later in John, was Nicodemus always tentative in his belief and "understanding." Still, it does give us some insight into the poles of belief; lotsa faith from Abram and not-so-much from Nicodemus.

There are days, weeks, months where I could fit into either category, but most of the time I feel like I'm somewhere in between. It doesn't seem quite so simple as there being only two options when God says "jump" - i.e. jumping or not. There is nuance in our jumping and our not jumping. This metaphor will now break down, but suffice it to say that even as we jump we may not be faithful and even as we hesitate we could be full of faith.

Abram and Nicodemus aren't so simple as to live only in those two options either. Seems as though as they fluctuate between ya-buts and yes-sirs they would have been in those shades of gray. As Nicodemus packed up the 75lbs of materials to help bury Jesus he must have given a lot of thought and prayer to how this would affect his status as a Pharisee, his standing in the culture, and his safety in Roman occupied Jerusalem. As Abram questions God faithfulness in Gen 15 he must still have a glimmer of hope in his soul, he must know that God will remain faithful to His word, he must be thinking about what life will be like in God's great reward.

It just isn't so simple as black-white, liberal-conservative, yes-no when it comes to following God. There are shades of gray in just about every interaction between humans and the Divine; makes sense, I guess, since knowing the mind of God ain't a possibility. Life is full of middle ways, and the one between the ya-buts and the yes-sirs is where I am living today.

February 12, 2008

emerging church proof-text

[please read the following with tongue firmly planted in cheek]

I have a feeling that if we look hard we will find that Brian McLaren has figured out time travel and edited in the three appearances of Nicodemus in John's Gospel. I mean how else could such a clear metaphor for the shift from enlightenment/modernity thinking to postmodern have ended up in the Scripture?

Think about it. We start with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, coming to Jesus looking for a rational argument as to why he should follow the Way. Jesus tries to make sense of it for him, but ultimately rational arguments fail. No matter how hard he tries, Jesus just can't make it make sense for Nicodemus. Born again, what? Lifted up like the serpent, who? So John just moves on with the story.

Then a few chapters later, Nicodemus, who has sorta, kinda, started to make logical sense out of it, tries to get his fellow Pharisees to join in. "Listen to him, ask him questions, challenge his apologetics, his systematic theology; maybe it'll make rational sense to you too." But this is to no avail.

Finally, however, Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea as they prepare Jesus' body for burial. All of a sudden Nicodemus has it. He has EXPERIENCED the love of God as Jesus hung on the cross. He has been moved from logic and reason to knowing the Truth. To the point that he brings 75 pounds of expensive burial materials to help.

What a shift. From logic to experience. Clearly McLaren had something to do with this.

February 11, 2008

Sermon for 1 Lent

I am not a camper. My idea of camping is a Motel 6; there is plenty of adventure to be had there. And yet, I still think that the wilderness gets a bad wrap. Now I understand that we just heard the story of what caused humanity to be removed from the Garden of Eden into THE WILDERNESS, but still, I think the wilderness gets picked on. When we associate it with religion it automatically becomes a place where the lost are doomed to wander or where the sinful are sent for punishment. But neither of those explanations seems to make sense as we encounter Jesus being LED by the Spirit from the Jordan River to the wilderness. He didn’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He didn’t grumble against God for only feeding him Manna. No, he has just been baptized by John with all the pageantry that went along with it. The same Spirit who leads him to the wilderness had just recently descended upon him like a dove. This trip to the wilderness can not be as bad as we assume it to be.

And yet, as we read on it almost sounds like it is worse than we think. No, he wasn’t being punished. No he wasn’t lost. But the Spirit led him to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil?!? Maybe trips to the wilderness are THAT BAD. As we look through the Scriptures, however, we see that trips to the wilderness are meant to teach, not to punish. The wilderness is where the faithful are prepared. The wilderness is where God’s people await God’s will. The wilderness is where God’s mercy and love are made known.[1] And this trip is no different. It isn’t as bad as it seems; it is instead an opportunity to see if the time is right; to make sure that Jesus has been fully prepared for the ministry to which he has been called. It is a test – the same Greek words as tempt – of his readiness to begin his journey toward Jerusalem and ultimately the cross.

And while it did not begin this way, Lent has become for us a similar time in the wilderness. The Spirit may not lead us there to be tempted by the devil, but the Church calls us to the wilderness for a period of testing; not to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love or even as a sort-of “self-help” retreat, but instead to bring our lives back into shape – to turn back toward God – to deepen our relationship with Jesus as we walk with him on that road to Jerusalem. We can look at Lent through the same negative lens that we see the wilderness. We can hem and haw about how the hymns are hard to sing. We can moan and groan about how guilty it makes us feel. Or, we can look at it in a positive light. We can take to heart the opening words of the prayer for absolution at the end of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, that “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, desires NOT the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live…” Despite what the Great Litany sounds like, Lent is not a time to be spent depressed while we beat ourselves over the head for all the ways we screw up. Instead it is a chance to re-evaluate and re-turn to God, with our wickedness and all. It is a time in the wilderness for preparation, for waiting, and for trusting. It is ultimately a time in which we are made ready for the great celebration of the Resurrection.

As with all periods of preparation in our lives it requires some testing (or tempting – depending on how you translate your Greek). Our churchmanship is tested in hymns that can be tough to sing; will we come back next Sunday and try again? Our personal piety is tested as we add or subtract something from our lives; is it worth no chocolate or the extra time spent in Bible study? Our mettle is tested; are we up to the task of self-examination and when done are we capable of standing before God sinners that we are? Lent is not easy, but Lent is not as bad as we make it out to be.

We return to Matthew’s gospel. The wilderness, we have seen, is not as bad as we assume it to be. And 40 days, well 40 days is what marks this event as special. “Forty: the days and nights that Noah and his family endured the deluge on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 7:4, 12; 8:6; 9:8-17). Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God's covenant for the Israelites (Exod 24:18; 34:27-28; Deut 9:9). Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God (1 Kgs 19:8). Forty: the years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land (e.g., Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7).”[2] It is not an arbitrary number of days that Jesus is in the wilderness, but a very intentional one. Forty is a number well known to the Israelite community; so forty is the number of days and nights that Jesus must spend fasting like Elijah, alone like Moses on Mount Sinai, utterly dependant on God like Noah and his family. Forty. Not thirty-nine. Not fifteen. Forty. God didn’t look down and see his only son famished on day twelve and say, “ok, that’s good.” No, it had to be forty. God himself couldn’t cut it short. These forty days were important. Without these forty days the rest of Jesus’ ministry is impossible. Jesus must be sure that he is ready for the challenges ahead; and forty days were needed.

So too, forty days in Lent is an intentional time period. We start on a Wednesday to get the full 40 days in. But, “How often do we try to hurry through Lent?”[3] How many of us drop our Lenten fasts like our New Year’s resolutions? How many of us long for the Sunday feast day to come so that we have an excuse to eat our chocolate or skip our meditations? I do. I’ll admit it. I gave up contempt for Lent this year, and for me, that is really hard. I’d love to hit up Wal*Mart this afternoon so that I can stand in line and think mean thoughts about the slowest cashier in history, but I need to not take advantage of this feast day. “There is something for all of us in [dwelling] in [the discomfort of our Lenten tests] - that we use just those times to grow spiritually. Self reflection is not nearly so common or so necessary when we are humming along happy that everything is going well. If we don't take some time [say 40 days or so] to reflect that we are dust - then what need would most of us have for a savior - especially one as forgiving as our… God? As uncomfortable as it may be, Lent is the time when most of us are most open to the blinding light of God's love.”[4] And it’ll take all 40 days. God didn’t cut short the testing/tempting of Jesus in the wilderness and neither should we.

This year for Lent, I propose that we look at it with joy. Instead of focusing on what we can’t have and can’t do we can look at what God is doing to restore our relationship with him. Instead of cutting it short because it is just too hard we must hang in there for the full 40 days to give God plenty of time to work. I am not a camper, but this Lent I’m setting up my tent and sitting and waiting. Won’t you join me? Amen.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Candyce Loescher’s comment on Lectionary Group 1 Lent - http://spankeysblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/lectionary-group-1-lent.html

[4] Ibid.

JOHN 3.17

I think John 3.17 should be held up on a sign by a guy in a rainbow wig at the Super Bowl. It should be the mantra for a new generation of Christians in the same way that the verse immediately prior to it has been since the 1970s.

See here is the thing. I want to focus not on the "who so ever believeth..." but rather that "the [whole] world might be saved..." It seems to me that 3.17 turns the attention in the right direction in two ways. First, it focuses on the saving work of Jesus, not on the work of humanity in believing. Second, it focuses on the whole world, not on the individual believer. These, I think, are two things that Christians need to pay attention to.

First, we have for too long made God's saving work the result of our good deeds. The cross is the full and necessary sacrifice. That is all that was needed to save the whole world. As Christians we are called to act as Jesus acted, but we should by no means begin to think that we get to share in the salvific work already done on the cross. We do good works as a response to the freedom given us by the cross; not vice verse.

Secondly, western civilization has fallen in love with the self. Community is a word that exists only with an adjective friend (i.e. gated community, faith community, resort community, over-55 community, etc.) We have lost the concept of community; the art of living together for the common good. But if one thing has become clear over the past decade or so, we are all part of the human community (ooops there's that adjective thing again). The world is flat, as they say, and the selfishness of the individual stands to doom the work of the community. Hence the turn of focus from "whosoever believeth" to "the world" is necessary for the Church in the 21st century.

So the next time you see the John 3.16 sign at a sporting event, think of yourself standing next to it with a sign of your own; John 3.17.

Readings for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year A, RCL

Are here.

February 8, 2008

2 Videos to Check out

Despite the fact that they star Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, they are not long. Take a couple of minutes to listen to his thoughts on FreshExpressions and emerging Christianity for the 21st century. At St. Paul's we are taking this very seriously in the hopes of re-introducing people to Jesus. (HT to Emergent Village and the rude armchair theologian for these videos).

Discernment of Socks - brown or black?

I know that it is dangerous to pick a piece of scripture out of context and run with it, but that seems to be what I do here, and it is working for me, so I'll do it again today.

Today, I noticed the 11th verse of Psalm 32. It reads, "Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you." It got me thinking about Lent as a turning of the will. It seems to me that God doesn't want to lead us constantly along "like [a] horse or mule... who must be fitted with bit and bridle..." but instead wishes that we would train our own will, our human nature, such that the right decision comes naturally.

Isn't that essentially what we say about Jesus? The early church fathers spent a lot of time, energy, and money getting together to discern a systematic theology in light of varying opinions. And at some point, they decided that Christ was fully human, meaning he had a will just like us, and fully divine, meaning that will was completely in touch with God's will, there was no variation, no sin, as it were. And isn't the goal of the Christian journey to become more like Christ? So then, it makes sense to me that at some point God would love to give up the bit and bridle knowing that we have been filled with the Spirit, given the necessary education, and are using rightly the knowledge of good and evil the fall granted us so that our will, our decisions will take us along the path of God.

It begins, I think, with the giving up of trite discernment. Does God care what socks you wear? No. Does God have a vested interest in where you go to college? Not really. Or quite frankly, does it even matter to God if you become a priest, a doctor, or a candlestick maker? I doubt it. What matter, what makes each of these decisions "of God" is that in every moment we are 1) giving God glory and 2) utilitizing the gifts which God has given each of us individually. Discernment is not "should I do, wear, eat, study this or that" but instead "is this or that going to bring me close to God"

Still, it isn't easy. There are days that I'd love to hand over my sock color decisions to someone else, but alas, God gave me a mind and a will that is slowly being molded to align with his, so I keep trying, messing up, getting back on track, and ultimately learning to be like Christ.

February 7, 2008

Now the serpent was more crafty...

I wrote a post about this time last year called "a crafty sob" in which I posit exactly what the Collect for the first Sunday in Lent says, 1) we are assaulted by many temptations and 2) the devil knows our pressure points. As I prepare again for the story of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness I can't help but be brought back to this same thought; especially since the Genesis lesson gives it to me flat out, "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made." The devil is one crafty SOB.

What he does is so ingenious that it has been stolen lock-stock-and-barrel by the marketers of our society; they find our weak spot and attack. In the case of marketers, our weak spot is that we want to live forever; and it just so happens that Coors Light, Oil of Olay, and Cadillac can help us achieve imortality. In the case of the devil, well our weak spots vary greatly. For some it is pride - others self-loathing. For some it is contempt - others care too much. For some it is greed - well for most it is greed/envy. But believe me, the devil knows where to strike, "surely God wouldn't..."

So our prayer for Lent 1 is so apt. "Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen." As God too knows our weaknesses, may we find him mighty to save. May he be our support structure; holding us firm despite the barrage of temptations coming from all sides. Just like the gusset plate up above helps spread the loads of a truss, so too is God sure to hold us tight amidst the near constant assault of the tempter. May we know that strength, and trust it this Lent.

Image from www.garrettsbridges.com

Ash Wednesday Sermon 2008

What we wear carries a lot of meaning. For instance, today is the second time in St. Paul’s Church that I am wearing my stole over both shoulders. It signifies that I am now a priest in Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Doctors wear white lab coats to signify their profession; and from what I understand the longer the coat the longer the tenure. Construction workers carry tool belts with tools specific to their trade. Some people wear gray hair; a sign of age, yes, but also wisdom and character. What we wear carries a lot of meaning.

And today we give special consideration to what we wear upon our brow. In fact, for those of us who follow Foley High School football today might be the most important day in forehead apparel in recent history. Not only will we leave this church carrying the cross of Christ in ash upon our foreheads but at some point today, national signing day, Julio Jones will don the cap of his chosen university; signifying to everyone where the next phase of his football carrier will take him. What we wear carries a lot of meaning.

As we prepare to wear this outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace today, we hear from Jesus that, when it comes to our relationship with God, what we wear and how we wear it has nothing to do with how close to God we are. Instead, our inner life is what matters. What we do in secret carries a lot more meaning in God’s eyes than what we wear.

Jesus begins the lesson by offering this warning, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them…” He then goes on to offer three examples of how “acts of righteousness” are turned into “acts of pride” by how we carry ourselves in performing them. “When you give to the needy… When you pray… When you fast…” And we can easily add, “when you leave Ash Wednesday services…” as we will leave this place wearing something that could turn our act of righteousness into and act of pride which is a question that his close to home for me.

Cassie and I were married on March 1, 2003 and so our anniversary will almost always fall in Lent; our third anniversary happened to fall on Ash Wednesday. We attended the 7pm service at my church in Maryland and then headed off to dinner at one of our favorite Indian restaurants. Cassie and I debated some, and my seminary friends debated even more about the appropriateness of wearing our ashes to dinner. Would the Indians think we were mocking their faith practice? Would they think we were smacking our religion in their face? Would they care? Would they even notice? And on a larger scale, with today’s Gospel lesson in mind should we leave the church grounds with ashes on our foreheads at all?

It is an interesting question; one that leads us to believe that Jesus is addressing a much larger spiritual issue in this lesson. It isn’t Jesus turning us back to the Law; making very specific rulings of how we should practice our faith, but instead Jesus is checking our motivations. Is the focus of our almsgiving God or us? Is the focus of our long-winded prayer God or us? Is the focus of our fast God or us? Whose glory is being shone by these actions? If it is us, then the actions mean nothing, they aren’t spiritual disciplines, but instead they are acts of self-delusion. They aren’t religious observances, but instead they are pride filled statements of life on our terms.

Instead, Jesus says, store up treasure in heaven. Don’t let your left hand know what the right is doing. Pray in the secrecy of your heart, your private room, not out in the streets for all to see. Don’t wear your mardi gras mask while you fast so that others will ask what you are doing, instead shower, shave, and look normal. Or, in other words, don’t wear it on your sleeve so people will think you are a spiritual all-star, let God make that determination.

So as we ponder the question that has long bothered me of whether we leave the ashes on our foreheads or wipe them off we have to ask again, what is our motivation? Will it be a good reminder for me of my own sinfulness and mortality? Will it remind me that God is in charge? Will it draw me into deeper relationship with God? If yes, then by all means keep it. --- BUT --- Will it get me a lot of attention at the grocery store? Will it make my Baptist neighbors uncomfortable? Will it get me some sort of praise from my mom who thinks this stuff is really important? If yes, then maybe I should wipe it off.

See our walk with God is first and foremost about realizing that God is God and we are not. All that we do in our spiritual life is a response to what God has already done. God won’t love us any more or any less because we give to the poor. But God is glorified more or less depending on how we approach our giving. Like it or not, God’s reputation here on earth has everything to do with those of us who follow him. If we make ourselves to look high and mighty; God looks bad. If instead, we live a life of reverent faith; joyful, loving, and compassionate, God looks good. It is that simple.

What we wear carries a lot of meaning. But infinitely more important is what we do not wear; what gets done in secret. Our spiritual all-star badge should be carried on the inside, rather than on our forehead for all the world to see. So check your motivation, Jesus tells us, and give God all the glory. Amen.

February 6, 2008

I'm a soft...

During "the process" I got a lot of different questions aimed at pinning me down theologically. One that came up over and over was, "do you think the Bible should be read literally?" And my answer was always, "I am a soft literalist." They would of course press that issue, and ultimately what I meant by that was that the life to which we are called in Scripture is to be interpreted literally. The Truth of God revealed in Scripture is literal Truth. But, was the world created in six 24 hour time-spans? I don't know. Did Noah live to be 950 years old? MMMM, dunno. Did God create everything from nothing? YES. Did God call Noah to a life of faith against all odds and despite his penchant of wine? YES. See Truth and truth are two different things.

Similarly, over the past few years I've come to deal with the question of universal salvation; does everyone go to heaven? And I think I am now a "soft universalist." Now Matt and Peter, before you get too excited know this; not everyone will go to heaven and there is in fact a hell. I say that I am a soft universalist today having read again the words from the letter to the Romans, "just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all."

I believe that the atonement made for us by Jesus on the cross was once and for all. I believe that through his sacrifice ALL are given the opportunity to join him in his Kingdom. But I do not believe all will. For that, I turn to the 1st letter of Peter chapter 2 verse 8b, "They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do." And I read this not as a proof of predestination, but rather proof that there is a destination. See when we live life focused on ourselves, disobeying the word, ignoring the Truth we are destined to stumble. When we live life for ourselves and not for God, we choose a destination outside of his Kingdom; we give up our inheritance; the universal salvation offered to all. BUT, when we live life for God; when we give our lives over to Him, when he is the focus of all glory and honor, when we strive to live the Kingdom life now, then we are destined to be by his side; to claim the birthright given to us in Christ Jesus.

And so this Lent, I will strive to live that Kingdom life. I will offer myself, my soul and body as a living sacrifice; not for me, but for God, because I know the destination I have chosen. I'm a soft literalist and a soft universalist; a walking contradiction, and I'm ok with that.

Blessings on a holy Lent.

February 5, 2008

Great Post over at God's Politics

Our house wondered just the other day when politics would catch up to the rest of the world. We gave up left v. right a long time ago; cuz it doesn't ring true. Nobody is a left as Hillary and Obama claim to be. Nobody (except maybe Ron Paul) is as right as Romney and Huckabee's sound bites. We don't buy it; but they keep selling it. Nuance was dead, but is now very much alive in 20-30 somethings and beyond. Check out Brian McLaren's post on Crazy Evangelicals for a deeper insight.

Lectionary Group 1 Lent

Woooo. Good stuff today as we tried to jump past our Ash Wednesday sermons and look at what the first Sunday of Lent has in store.

The first great insight came from Dr. J as he called us not to gloss over verse 2: "He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished." Not many of us can imagine what a forty day fast is like. To not eat or drink even from sun up to sun down for 40 straight days would do crazy things to our bodies, minds, and spirits. But even though we don't take on traditional 40 day fasts, Dr. J called us to think about the various other 40s that do happen; 40 hours, 40 days, even 40 years... Think about the first 40 days after someone loses a spouse; is that not a fast? The same goes for new parents; the first 40 days of not being without children. Or the first 40 hours, days, weeks, months, and years for a recovering addict. All are in one way or another a "fast" and a disruption of "life as usual" that leave us open to 1) life in God and 2) the temptation of evil. I thought this was a great insight into this passage; that is isn't all about the temptations, but it is about where Jesus is in his life that leaves him open to temptation.

The other great insight wasn't really for preaching, but for us as pastors; God didn't cut short the 40 days. He didn't jump in and rescue his son, but instead allowed the whole process to run its course. Isn't it tempting for us, as pastors, to try to circumvent the processes of life? We are all equipped with various means by which we can help someone through the disruptions that come with life changes, but we have to be so careful not to use them. Just "being with" and "being in" those moments is what we are called to do. We don't setup a new house for someone, but offer a cold beverage and a rested back. We don't live with our new parents and do their work, but we offer prayers, meals, and anything else they might need. And we can't take grief away from someone who has lost a loved one; we can only sit with, listen to and share stories, and assure them that with time the waves will get smaller and come with less frequency. This insight is something I need reminded of constantly.

Great stuff this week. Now back to Ash Wednesday.

Readings for the 1st Sunday in Lent, Year A, RCL

in not of... here.

February 1, 2008

the voice of God

We had an interesting discussion last night at Draughting Theology about God answering prayer. There was one part that really sparked my brain as we pondered why God doesn't talk to us anymore. I got to thinking about the lessons for Sunday; God's booming voice speaking to Moses, Jesus, Peter, James, and John from the cloud, and couldn't help but think that God hasn't stopped speaking to us. I wonder if we are just so inundated with people claiming to hear the voice of God that we've stopped bothering to discern who is true and who is not; we've just written them all off.

I have heard the voice of God. I'm not afraid to say that, though as you know, I love the quote from House, "If you talk to God you are religious, If God talks to you, you're crazy."
So I know that God has not stopped talking to us. Be it his booming voice from the cloud, the still small voice or 1 Kings or the continuous revelation of God in Scripture; God still talks to us. But with TBN, EWTN, the Network, Integrity, me, you, everyone claiming that God has told them they are right and the rest of the world is wrong why shouldn't we just write the whole thing off?

I guess maybe it comes down to a return to discernment. That spiritual gift that has been pushed aside by prophecy, lounges, and healing is one of the most important, in my estimation. The ability to discern between spirits; to know what is of God and what is not, is as important in our own lives as it is in the life of the Church. Am I called to lead the supper club ministry or Is the Church called to start an ESOL program? Both are the job of discernment. Both can come in the form of God's voice, but we must be able to hear it.

God hasn't stopped talking. Even in our hearing the story of Moses going up the mountain God continues to speak. We just have to listen, discern, and then act.