December 30, 2009

Pointing to Jesus

One of the great things about our five15 service is the ability to play. We play liturgically, we play musically, we play homeletically, and this week we'll play with the lectionary. Since we used the lessons for Christmas Day on the 26th, we'll combine lessons for Christmas 1 and 2 so that we get a chance to hear and play around with the prologue to John's Gospel.

I decided to go this route while I was reading this week's Gospel Commentary at Ginger Barfield, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC, wrote elegantly about the role of the John (the Witness) in the larger story based on a panel of altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald.

What I love about this piece (which is from the Wikipedia Commons and out of copyright) is how seemingly normal John looks. Sure he's got a pretty big beard, but he's not wearing camel hair and eating wild locusts; he could be any of us. Any of us who chooses to spend their whole life, even to the point of death, pointing to Jesus. John, the evangelist, is clear that John, the witness, was not the light, but pointed to the light. So too should we be doing the same thing, pointing away from ourselves and toward the one who we serve; Jesus, God's Logos, who moved into the neighborhood.

The conversation around this needs more work before Saturday evening, but that's ok, for today, I'm content to sit with Matthias Grunewald while I ponder how I might better point to Jesus.

December 29, 2009

Readings for Christmas 2, Year C

Jeremiah 31.7-14
Psalm 84 or 84.1-8
Matthew 2.13-15, 19-23
or Luke 2.41-52
or Matthew 2.1-12

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

December 25, 2009

This Little Light of Mine...

For the last month or more Lite Mix 99.9 and My 107.3 have been battling for our listening ears by playing nothing but Christmas music. If you are anything like the Pankey household, your family has no doubt heard the 1984 BandAID classic “Do they know its Christmas Time?” about 1000 times already. I'd guess that every listening area in the country has at least one radio station that goes “all Christmas all the time” beginning on Thanksgiving, (or maybe Halloween or in some cases July 4ht) and I think it has to be because, for many of us, it is the music that makes Christmas Christmas. Even tonight we gathered 30 minutes early to sing the great Christmas Hymns because, quite frankly, we don't get to sing them for very long.
And so tonight we sing out and we sing loudly as we give thanks for the birth of Jesus Christ, the king of kings, the light of the world, the bringer of peace. We join with Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and a choir of angels to sing out for joy because of the hope that is present in the birth of the Son of God. We fulfill the obligation laid out by David in our Psalm for tonight and we sing a new song to proclaim the good news of salvation.
But, despite all the carols we've had the chance to sing tonight, I think we're still missing one. For my taste, there isn't a better Christmas Carol than the Vacation Bible School classic, "This little light of mine." It is the second most requested song during our Sunday school song time, a childhood favorite. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine. Even when I'm afraid, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Our light shines in the daytime when things are good. It shines in the nighttime when things are scary. It shines in and through us every moment of everyday, but no more so than tonight as we celebrate the light that came into a very dark world in the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
"In those days a decree went our from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city." Luke sets the familiar Christmas scene by pointing his readers to just how dark the world was for God's chosen people in the first century. They were, once again, being ruled by an outside, pagan worshiping, super powerful dictator who moved them around at his whim like pawns on a chess board. They paid taxes upon taxes so that they remained poor and powerless. And to top it off, it had been hundreds of years since the great prophets like Isaiah had promised that God's favor would return to Israel. The people of Israel had all but forgotten the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations. Their candle of hope was dim and fading fast. It was a very dark time.
It isn't hard to relate to the darkness felt by the people of Israel. As 2009 draws to a close, it does so leaving a heavy burden on our shoulders and a fog that is increasingly hard to see through. We worry about two wars and a never ending threat of terrorist attack. We carry the weight of continued economic uncertainty and a polarized nation represented in a bitterly disagreeing congress. As individuals we struggle with health problems, addictions, and depression. We can't forget this Christmas season those who are in poverty, who don't have homes, who have no clue where their next meal will come from. The list goes on and on. Even tonight, this dreary, rainy Christmas Eve leaves us feeling like things are, in fact, pretty dark. In the midst of our gloominess, however, a familiar story rings out, the story of Christmas, the birth of our savior, Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger.
"In that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, 'Be not afraid..."
As dark as our world might feel, there was perhaps no place darker than the fields outside Bethlehem where the shepherds tended their flocks that fateful night. Considered unclean by their own people, the outcast shepherds tended sheep so that others could make offerings to God. In a society where very few had much of anything, shepherds had the very least. And it is to them that God decides to share what was up until now Mary and Joseph's little secret. In the midst of deep darkness God shines the light of his glory. To the lowly and the outcast God shares the good news of salvation for all flesh. And it all begins with three simple words, "be not afraid." As the angel of the Lord filled the nighttime sky with the brightness of God's glory, the shepherds trembled in fear which threatened to send them into an even deeper darkness, but God's light is not about fear and trembling, but about refreshment and renewal.
"Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
The prophet Isaiah had promised that those in darkness would see a great light and that was indeed the case on that first Christmas night. An outcast, oppressed, and lonely people were for the first time in hundreds of years given a ray of hope - good news of great joy meant for all people. Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, lying in a feed trough is the redeemer of the world, and it was the task of the shepherds to carry the light of the good news and tell the story to everyone they saw. And tell the story they did. They went to find the baby Jesus and told Mary and Joseph all that they had heard. Then they left, returning to the hard work of the dark night, but now they carried the light of the gospel with them, "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen."
2000 years later, God continues to use regular people in regular places to carry the light of Christ into the darkness of the world. He worked in and through the unclean shepherds to pass on the light from generation to generation and now he shines his light in and through you and me. Little by little one light meets another and they meet a third until, on an evening like tonight, hundreds gather to shine the bright light of God's glory in the midst of great darkness. And, as much as we'd like all the darkness of our fear and worry to go away in a flash, it is God's slow and methodical plan to make his light shine brighter and brighter in our lives and in this world. The light born of a young virgin girl, spread to the shepherds outside Bethlehem and then to a rag-tag group of 12 fishers of men, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, orphans, widows, and perhaps most surprisingly you and me.
Tonight, as we sit on the other side of the story of Jesus, 2000 years after his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we await his return by continuing the work of the shepherds. We let our light shine in the darkness and tell the story of hope that was born in the baby called Jesus. We glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. For unto us, is born this night, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
As 2009 draws to a close there may be much that appears to be dark, but the light of Christ is alive and well here at St. Paul's. Be it in the hallways of Foley Elementary School or the cot filled education building while we host Family Promise or the laughter around a supper club table, this community works continuously to shine the light of good news for all people. And on this dark and dreary Christmas Eve, I give thanks for your shining the light of Christ in my life. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine. Even when I'm afraid I'm gonna let it shine. May God bless you this Christmas with the bright light of his glory that you can shine in the world of darkness. Amen.

December 23, 2009


The problem with major feasts is that they are so easy to over think. So far, I've written two Christmas Eve sermons that would probably get me an A in some random and useless seminary course, but for the pulpit at St. Paul's in Foley they will not do. So today, I'm returning to the thing that got me through seminary - its only a lot of reading if you do it. Which is to say I'm throwing out the research and returning to the story. Keep It Simple Stupid.

What strikes me for tomorrow evening is how ripe this text is for the four-pages sermon.

1) The problem in the text is simple. Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem to be counted a Roman census. They are going at the whim of Augustus (who calls himself the son of god) so that his tax policy can be assured to keep them poor and powerless. Top that with the fact that it has been hundreds of years since the prophets made their promise of a Messiah, and 1st century Palestine is a very very dark place.

2) The problem in our world is pretty simple too. Two wars, financial uncertainty, health problems, kids with addictions, pirates, poverty, depression, etc. Top that with the fact that the last hundred years have brought about such technological advances as to force us into a keep up with the Jones' lifestyle that promises to keep us poor and powerless. 21st Century America is a pretty dark place. (This doesn't even touch the issues of extreme poverty in Latin and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East).

3) The hope in the text is also simple. The angel choir and the great multitude sings the praises and tells the good news. "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill to all people." For in the city of bread a savior is born who is Christ the Lord; one who will feed us with his body and blood until he returns again with power and great triumph to restore all things according to God's perfect plan. Those who live in darkness have seen a great light because today, a child is born and hope has been restored.

4) The hope for our world is also simple. God became human, was laid in an animal's feed trough, lived in the nitty-gritty of 1st century Palestine, worked with his hands, and invites us into the messiness of life too. As Keith said a couple weeks ago, "God can do anything, but he doesn't do everything." He came to earth in ultimate weakness, a baby boy in an oppressed nation, and changed the world. Now, as we await his return, he empowers us to continue the work of setting all things right, of turning the upside-down right-side-up.

It is the same theme that our Sunday congregation has heard from me over and over again, but maybe this year our Christmas crowd needs to hear it. God comes in darkness and shines the light of hope. It doesn't happen all at once, but through his people the world is slowly but methodically being returned to the fullness of its created goodness.

Merry Christmas friends, and may God continue to bless you in the new year.

December 22, 2009

can you see the light?

The Lectionary Brainwave over at has been particularly fruitful the past couple of weeks. They noted in their Christmas edition how Augustus attempted to make his power known by moving around pawns in the far reaches of his empire (by calling a Census) while God made his power known by working in and through those who were powerless. There were two hands at work as Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem; one was the power of the empire the other the power of God.

There is so very little in our lives that we are actually in control of. For many, but not all, of our people Christmas Eve will carry the weight of fear this year as the Senate is scheduled to vote on their version of Health Care Reform. Pawns are being moved around, seemingly at the whim of those in "power", and yet Christmas reminds us that God is ultimately in control. His hand works through history and his hand prevails.

This all makes Isaiah's famous line, "those who have lived in darkness will see a great light" all the more powerful this year. In the midst of the fear and darkness that this world has to offer can we see the light? The light is there. It is shining brightly. But we have to open our eyes and crawl out from under the bed to see it. Jesus is the light to enlighten the nations. He is the hope of salvation for all. He is coming, but are you able to see him? If not, try opening your eyes, looking beyond the fear and seeing the hope that is greater than national debt, taxes, health insurance, and government. The hope that exists when God says, "Have no fear!"

December 21, 2009

how does one preach Christmas?

Thursday night will be my second time to preach the Feast of the Nativity. The first time around I used humor to reach out to an audience that is very different from Sunday morning, almost unknown. This year, I'm just not sure which way to go.

The Feast of the Nativity celebrates an offensive event; God became flesh and dwelt among us. Titus explains that he came to bring salvation to all. Isaiah promises that he came to bring peace. The incarnation is wildly difficult to understand and preaching it is nearly impossible. Does the preacher rail against commercialism and tell all the kids Santa isn't real? I've heard of this being done, but you won't see it from me. Does the preacher make the gospel soft and cuddly for the Poinsettia and Lily folk hoping that they'll return sometime in between? I've heard of this being done, but you won't see it from me. Do I stumble around the fact that Jesus was probably born in April and then tell people Jesus is the reason for the season (I heard this last night, and my head almost exploded)? I usually try to live by Paul's advice to preach only Christ and him crucified, but that's just impossible on Christmas; let's let Jesus be born before we kill him.

So today I search and listen. Today I seek a way into the good news that God was born on Christmas Day. I think it comes in one of two ways - either I'll preach light or I'll preach the fringes. Either way, I pray the Spirit guides the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart.

Advent 4 five15 Conversation Starter

Here's the link to the conversation starter slides for five15 on Advent 4.

Readings for Christmas Day (RCL1)

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 96

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or this

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

or this

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

December 17, 2009

blessed is she...

I don't have my Bibleworks software installed at home, so I'm just guessing here, but I'd bet dollars for donuts that "blessed is she..." occurs very rarely in Scripture. I am of the opinion that if a word or phrase is not common in Scripture, especially within any given book, then it is worth paying attention to.

So this morning I'm drawn to the end of Elizabeth's oracle of praise as she says, "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

Blessed indeed.

The thing we don't get in Year C is any sense of how we got to Advent 4. There is no story of the annunciation, no immaculate conception, no Mary saying "yes." But she did say "yes" and in so doing changed the course of salvation history. Her yes was a yes for the whole world. Her yes lead to the salvation of all.

As I've prepared for five15 this week, I've realized that there are very few representations of Mary from this pre-incarnation phase of her life. She's either holding the newborn Jesus or weeping at the cross. But what we get here is the extent of her blessing, the fullness of her joy, the vastness of her hope.

I commend to you the art of Virginia Wieringa, especially her pieces Magnificat 1 and Magnificat 2 as I believe she captures the joy (all be it in a muted fashion) of Mary as she stands on the front step of Elizabeth's home realizing just how blessed she is.

December 16, 2009

have you ever read the Magnifcat (pt 2)

I have not.

But fortunately there are people who have degrees and get paid to do so. Three of those people work at Luther Seminary in Minnesota and record a weekly podcast called "Sermon Brainwave." This week they discussed the Magnificat at length and one of the professors noted that it is probably in the gnomic aorist tense.


Gnomic aorist probably means nothing to you. It meant nothing to me, until they explained it and then I began to do some research. The Gnomic tense is also called the universal tense and it is used so infrequently that most languages don't even have it. But Biblical Greek does, and what it does is speak universal truths or aphorisms. "Water boils at 212 degrees," would be stated in gnomic aorist if English had such a tense.

Anyway, what this means for the preacher is that Mary's radical worldview and amazing statements about God are stated matter-of-factly as if she were saying "water boils at 212 degrees."

Mary's song is a character sketch of the God of all creation; a list of habitual behaviors of the past that, as impossible as it seems to her and her people, God is doing now what happened then. And as impossible as it sounds to us, God continues to be about the lowly and those who fear him. He still scatters the proud and brings down the powerful. He will always help his servants who remember his mercy.

Mary sings a song that the early Church continued to sing that we too should keep on our lips and in our hearts that says, "you want to know the Lord, look and see what he does."

My soul praises the Lord because he had done and is doing great things.

December 15, 2009

Have you ever read the Magnificat?

I have read or sung Mary's Magnificat hundreds of times in my life as an Episcopalian. Found in Luke 1, Mary's famous song, is sung in response to Elizabeth's version of "Hail Mary." And Mary, unwed teenage mother-to-be that she is, does not disappoint with the "radical" nature of her song.

Whether or not Mary actually sang this song is irrelevant because the early Church did, and what it gives us is great insight into what the Church believed the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant for the world. And, we can assume, what it did not mean.

What it meant is:
  • God favors the lowly
  • God gives mercy to those who fear him - i.e. give him reverence, honor, and respect
  • God leaves the proud to be the victims of their own folly
  • God makes the powerful weak and the weak strong
  • God cares for the poor (and the poor in spirit)
  • God keeps his promises
Now, think for a minute about what the Church (not your church, but the Church Universal) says the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means for the world. Do they sound the same? I doubt it. The Church (at least the part of it that gets press) is usually spouting off about: the end times, homosexuality, your sinfulness, its power position with the power players, etc. To me, this sounds almost exactly the opposite of what Mary (and the early Church) said about God. To me, this sounds like God leaving the proud to be victims of their own folly. To me, it means that preachers need to get about the business of talking about what it means to follow the God that Mary sings about.

It is dangerous and radical and yet no more so than the Son of God being born of a teenage virgin in 1st century Palestine.

Seriously, have you ever read the Magnificat?

December 14, 2009

Lessons for Advent 4, Year C

Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 3 or 15
OR Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 3, Year C

I am not a Starbucks person. I don't get that fratalian language where the largest size is the only one that doesn't translate “large.” I don't like how bitter their coffee is. I don't like paying $5 for something that tastes like hot chocolate from a packet. I am just not a Starbucks person. And yet, Starbucks has taught me a great lesson about the gospel. Diana Butler Bass, a favorite professor of mine once asked, “how can the church implement one size fits all programs in a world where there are 82,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks?”
This is a profoundly challenging and beautiful question that is also deeply Biblical. In our Gospel lesson this morning we find John the Baptist along the Jordan River preaching to a crowd of people who had come to be baptized. Luke tells us that the crowd had come to the banks of the Jordan because they were filled with expectation. They were hanging out in the dangerous wilderness with the crazed Baptist because they were hungry and seeking. Hundreds of years had passed since Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel had laid out promises of a Messiah. The people were so very hungry for the restoration of their land and their God that, at least according to Mark's version, all the people of Jerusalem had come to hear his preaching and to be baptized by him. Pharisees, Sadducees, Mothers, Fathers, Stonecutters, Carpenters, Widows, Orphans, Children, Adults, Tax Collectors, and Soldiers: people of all sizes, shapes, and creeds had come to see this man, and they all came with the same question upon their heart.
“What should we do?” “What should we do to bring about the forgiveness of our sins? What should we do to restore this land? What should we do to bring about salvation for all flesh? What should we do to prepare the pathway of the Lord? We know it is going to happen. We are filled to overflowing with expectation. Now what should we do to be ready for it to happen?”
And just like 82,000 people can leave Starbucks with something different in their paper cup, so too could thousands upon thousands leave the presence of John the Baptist with a set of preparation instructions that were unique to their particular lifestyle and situation. The Good News of God has never been one size fits all. Instead, God has always been interested in the peculiarities of the individual: from his one on one conversations with Adam in the Garden of Eden to his presence just last Sunday in a white rental car with Louisana plates while a group of us stood on the sidewalk and waved goodbye to Betty Schultz. God is keenly interested in you, not y'all, just you.
Theologians call this idea, The Scandal of the Particular. I'll let Nora Gallagher explain it, It is “The idea is that God, the enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” cares about each and every one of us, not en mass, but each of us as one particular person. The God of Creation—Aristotle's Unmoved Mover or Plato's Divine Source— stooped to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, he cares even if a single sparrow falls to the ground. This "Yahweh" was completely low-brow to the Greeks, it was a scandal: from the Greek skandalon, which means ‘snare or stumbling block.' And yet, it's a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one, singular, particular life.”[1]
Have you ever given that idea any real thought? The God of all Creation cares for you, one particular person among the 7 billion who are alive today, cares enough to number the hairs on your head. Cares enough to sit with you when you are sad or scared or lonely. Cares enough to give you room to learn and grown and make mistakes. Cares enough to send a wild-eyed man to the banks of the Jordan River to proclaim the good news that salvation is available to all. To the Hebrew's who came to see John it was an idea that had almost been forgotten. To the Romans who came to see him it was a stumbling block. To us today, it is almost too good to be true. But the great news is that it isn't too good to be true. It is too good not to be true.
And so we return to the banks of the Jordan River and hear John's response to the crowd's questions.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Inherent in that answer is its opposite, “Whoever has no coat must put his pride away and accept the gift of a brother; and whoever has no food must do likewise.” To the Tax Collectors, the traitors that they were; collecting money from their own people for the pagan Roman government, John commanded, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the Soldiers, Roman men working in Podunk Palestine, one of the worst assignments possible, John's advice was, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Summed up, John's sage wisdom is, “be nice, share with one another, and don't steal.” Wow, thanks buddy! Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten. Great!
But maybe that's the other side of this scandal of the particular. The particular is often pretty mundane. Opportunities to follow the will of God don't have to mean selling all your possessions, moving to Kenya, and preaching the Gospel in Swahili. Most often, the will of God is quite simply, “be nice, share with one another, and don't steal.” A impossibly simple as that might sound.
While I was in seminary, I had the distinct pleasure of having a Spiritual Director, someone who would regularly sit down with me to talk about the life of the Spirit. Her favorite question was, “Where was God in that?” There were times when that question infuriated me. God is not in the annoying classmate who can't get the date of the Reformation in her notes even after the professor repeated it four times. God is not in my email inbox. God is not in the traffic light. God is not... God is not... God is not... I made all sorts of excuses and reasons why God was not where he most certainly was. Because if God is anywhere, it is in the mundane, ordinary, boring annoyances of everyday life. Being a participant in the Kingdom of God is as simple as having the faith necessary find God in the midst of it all.
So then, as we sit here on the Third Sunday of Advent, filled with expectation for the coming of Jesus on Christmas Day, what should we do? What should we do to prepare for his coming as a baby again this Christmas? What should we do to prepare for his second coming to judge the world? What should we do?
There are more than 82,000 ways to answer that question because God has a specific plan for each of us, but off the top of my head I can think of some things he might say. Welcome the families of family promise this week with open hearts and open hands. Spend a minute and drop a Christmas note to someone you haven't talked to in a while. Invite someone to Christmas Eve who hasn't gone to church in a while. Shop less. Spend more time with family and friends. And, as Paul reminds us Rejoice, don't worry, and accept the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
In the end, however, I probably can't give you any better advice than John the Baptist gave the crowd 2000 years ago. Be nice, share with one another, and don't steal. Simple rules for living that remind us that God is everywhere, even in the midst of the mundane and boring annoyances of life; pointing us down the path of salvation. Amen.

December 10, 2009

Homily for Advent 2C

Advent invites us into four weeks of uncomfortableness unlike any other time in the Church year. Not only is it a season of waiting, which I know I am exceptionally bad at, but it also is a season of prophecy, and prophecy has always been a call to repentance, and repentance is a topic nobody likes to talk about because it has to do with sin. Repentance is the way we translate the Greek word “metanoia” and the Hebrew word “shoob” which both refer to the action of turning around. In order to get to repentance – to turning around – we have to admit that at some point we turned the wrong direction, and most of us don't like to admit such things. The season of Advent is just a really uncomfortable time.
But throughout there are glimmers of hope. There are reminders of why we wait in the first place. Glimpses of the amazing thing that happens when we 1) admit we were wrong and 2) turn around to rightness. This week, we get that fleeting vision in the lesson from Baruch, an apocryphal book attributed to the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. The portion we heard read this afternoon is from the section entitled, “Jerusalem is Assured of Help” and it gives us, I think, a different spin on repentance.
“Take of the garment of your sorrow and affliction... and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”
As hard as it is for us and individuals to admit to our sinfulness, it isn't hard to see the results of a world full of sinners. Turn on the five o'clock news and you'll get at least 26 minutes of stories that will make you keenly aware that we don't have it all right. Drugs, murder, sex, money, power, corruption, violence, war, politicking, the list goes on and on. Even the most starry-eyed among us is hard pressed to say that the world, by and large, isn't a pretty ugly place filled with sorrow and affliction. And it is so easy to sit and wallow in that ugliness throwing the world's largest pity-party to which everyone is invited.
But that, my friends, is my definition of sin – forgetting that God is ultimately in control. The devil would like nothing more than for us to heap upon shoulders the unbearable weight of garments of sorrow and affliction; piled so high that we collapse under their pressure, fully consumed by their overwhelming sadness. Sorrow, affliction, sadness – these things are not of God.
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction... and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”
God is all about freedom, release, restoration, and beauty. True repentance is the handing over of our self-made cloaks of sorrow, affliction, brokenness, and ugliness so that God can offer us back the garment of glory.
Advent may be four weeks of uncomfortableness. It may be filled with images of waiting and sin, but the good news is that in Christ God has taken care of all the messiness, and all we have to do is be willing to give up the sorrow in return for joy. May this season be one of turning away from our self-inflicted sinfulness and toward the God of our salvation. Amen.

brood of vipers

My favorite sermon prep site has started a fan page on facebook. The really cool thing about the page is the wall feature. Anyone who is a fan of The Text this Week can add comments on the fan page wall, and many do: often a quick glimpse into what they are preaching.

I'm still learning how to sort through the thousands of comments each week, but this week there was one that really caught my eye. A guy named John Cordes asks, " If John's audience is a 'brood' of vipers -- the offspring -- then who, or what, are the parents? Is John really insulting his own audience, or their 'parents'?"

Understanding that anyone can say any word means anything, I went to the dictionary and found three definitions for the word "brood."

1. the young of an animal
2. a group having a similar nature or origin
3. the children of a family

This question is extremely interesting as it relates to John's audience in Luke. In Luke's account, John is preaching to the crowd whereas in Matthew's version this note of derision is aimed exclusively at the Pharisees and Saducees. I'm reminded of the old Roman Catholic model of relationship between priest and parishioner - Father and Child - and I can't help but wonder if the members of the crowd aren't seen by John as the spiritual children of the Pharisees and Saducees (in Luke) who are themselves the children of a tradition that has been perverted to the point of inaction and sin.

John, as the last of the Old Testament Prophets, is pointing to the system of religion that has failed to honor God and calling people, the children of that system, to change.

Does this reading help us hear John a little better? Are we less likely to shut down when we hear the seemingly harsh tone of "you brood of vipers"? And then, how do we hear John speaking to us today? What are we the children of and how do we, the inheritors of corrupt and sinful institutions, hear the call to repentance?

The scandal of the particular turned on its head means that individuals are called to change institutions precisely because God cares about all things.

December 9, 2009

the scandal of the particular

If she isn't famous for it yet, I hope to make Diana Butler Bass famous for asking, "how can we implement one size fits all programs in a world where there are 82,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks?"

The beauty of this question is that it is deeply, deeply biblical. John the Baptist preached up and down the Jordan River and he baptized, according to Mark's account "all the people of Jerusalem." He ran into people of all sorts; Pharisees, Sadducees, Moms, Dads, Widows, Orphans, Kids, Adults, Tax Collectors, Soliders and preached his one sized fits all message of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins to them all.

But to the individual he also made it particular. His word of exhortation was not limited to "Be Baptized" but as the Holy Spirit worked in the heart of people, John spoke the truth they needed to hear. He named the sin they had to hand over.

Those who have two coats - give one away.
Those who have food - share it.
Tax Collectors - do your job and take no more than is prescribed
Soldiers - do your job and don't extort or threaten people

See the scandal of the gospel is that the good news is available to you. Jesus died for all humanity, sure, but he also died for you and wants you to change your ways and follow him.

I'm not sure if coffee existed in 1st century Palestine, and I know there couldn't have been 82,000 permutations for it, but even then the gospel was not one-size fits all. It was the good news of repentance for individuals who would, motivated by grace, come together to create the Church, which would, motivated by grace, one day come together to offer again the good news that God cares about you.

December 8, 2009

do not worry about anything

There are times where Paul is so dense that even trained theologians aren't really sure what he is trying to say. This week, with the lesson from Philippians 4:4-7, our teaching from Paul is very, very clear.
  • rejoice always
  • again, rejoice
  • let your gentleness be known to everyone
  • do not worry about anything
  • in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving tell God what you need
But if you can't accuse Paul of being obtuse here, you can say he is setting the bar awfully high. These five "simple" rules for life, are, in fact, very difficult. I get that. Paul, I'm sure got that. And God gets it too. Which is why the rules are less important than the promise that follows.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Rejoicing, gentleness, lack of worry, thanksgiving - these things are hard to pull off on your own, but with God all things are possible. With the peace of Christ resting in your heart it is a whole lot easier to give up worry, to maintain a spirit of gentleness, and to rejoice no matter what. Paul sets the bar pretty high, but he can't set it too high for God.

December 7, 2009

five15 convo starter - advent 2c

Here is the link for Saturday's conversation (which was more like a teaching) from the lessons for Advent 2c.

stir up your power

This coming Sunday is one of those "be careful what you pray for" kind of days. Asking God to stir up his power and with great might to come among us is risky, risky business. Quite frankly, it is a prayer that I'm not sure we want to add our "amen" to. Because just as the story of restoration from Zephaniah is a story of God stirring up his power, so too is the experience of JBap and the crowd.

Asking God to stir up his power and come among us means that life while change. A LOT. It will mean giving up your second coat so that someone can have one. It will mean new ways of doing business; ways that will often negatively reflect poorly on the bottom line.

It is an interesting week to be a preacher; do I choose "rejoice" or "you brood of vipers"? Come Holy Spirit, come.

Readings for Advent 3, Year C

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

December 3, 2009

a different spin on repentance

I think, by and large, American's are uncomfortable with the concept of sin. We like the thought of being relatively autonomous and are fairly content in the life choices we've made. And so weeks like Advent 2, especially in the (former) mainline, are really hard. If we aren't keen on sin, then we certainly don't want to hear about a call to repentance.

Sure, we've made it a little more palatable over the years. We've reclaimed the Hebrew idea of repentance as turning around and returning to the Lord, but that still assumes we will admit that we've turned the wrong way at some point.

But there seems to be a different spin on the theme of repentance in the lesson from Baruch, "take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God."

Funny thing about people - we may dislike sin conceptually, but most will agree that the world is an ugly place filled with sadness and affliction. Spun this way, I think the Church really has an opportunity to teach about repentance as the removal of our self-inflicted afflictions as we put on the restorative garment of God. I know that it isn't the job of the Church to make its teaching fit society; I get that, but we do need to use language that people can both hear and buy into. Maybe that language for our time comes from a book attributed to the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah; one who called the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repentance.

December 2, 2009

Road Construction

We spent a whole lot of time in lectionary group yesterday playing with the metaphor of building God's roadway. Ultimately, we determined three things about it.
1. It takes a lot of work to build a road.
2. It takes a lot of time to build a road.
3. If said road requires hills to be made low and valleys to be filled in and curves to be made straight, then it requires a lot of people to give up something to make it possible.

It was point three that I resonated with. In my time as a business manager for a construction company there was a project in which I had to find the names and addresses of every property owner along a 3 mile stretch. We were going to have to invoke the county's right-of-way and we had to let them know. Most were agreeable, but one family had just installed a decorative driveway that would be ruined by our digging. There was some fighting and some anger and some negotiating, but ultimately they had to give it up.

As the pathway of God is built it will find its way on to everyone of our properties and require us to give up some piece of ourselves. Sometimes it will run through a corner of our lot, but other times it will run through our bedroom or our bank vault or our liquor cabinet. There will be some fighting and probably some anger and surely some negotiating, but when it comes to God's desire to bring all flesh to his salvation, ultimately we will have to give it up.

December 1, 2009

Theology v. Preaching

I hold a backward theology of salvation. If it is true that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" than we were all saved 2000 years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Our free will, however, allows us to reject that salvation as we choose as individuals whether Jesus or something/one is Lord.

This Sunday seems like a good time to talk about this concept. The Baruch text almost asks for it as it is read in concert with the prophecy about JBap, but I'm not convinced that the pulpit is the place for such conversations.

To me, there seems to be a difference between the tasks of preaching and theological education. Or at least sometimes there is. All preaching is theological education but not all theological education is preaching. And sometimes the real art of preaching is knowing the difference.

To preach my own personal soteriology (theology of salvation) seems like a) a power play and b) useless. It is a power play because I have the pulpit and nobody else gets a word. So whatever I say is supposed to be true, and there is a fairly good chance my soteriology isn't. It is useless because if it stops there it lacks a "so what" piece, and even though I often lack it, every good sermon needs a "so what" piece.

So anyway, today I'm pondering the difference between theology and preaching. May God grant me the ability to get out of my head and preach from my heart. Amen.

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C

Baruch 5:1-9
or Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 4 or 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warning and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

November 23, 2009

The Promise

This year, the St. Paul's family will be participating in the decorating of a Jesse Tree. Each day it is our hope that our members will read the lesson, ponder the theme, and then create an ornament relating to that theme that can be hanged on the Jesse Tree as a part of the liturgy each Sunday. It is from that context that I read the lessons for Sunday and am forced to focus on the lesson from Jeremiah, because it, like the Jesse Tree, is all about the promise.

At five15 on Saturday we had fun with metaphors as we tried to expand our understanding of what it meant to have Christ as King. One that came from a small group was that God is a keeper of promises. In particular we were thinking about the new Ark supposedly being built in the Florida Everglades and how thankful we are that the promise of God to never again flood the whole earth is secure.

Anyway, what is intriguing and scary about the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah is that the one who is coming is said to "execute justice and righteousness" which is of course a wonderful and frightening idea because when this happens, I'm in deep trouble, and so are most of you. See, our concepts of justice and righteousness are nothing compared to Jesus' understanding of them. And our comfort is, by and large, based on injustice; the injustice of the haves and have nots, the injustice of outsources labor and cheap production, the injustice of a me first theology of scarcity.

And so today, as I think on the promise, I also realize, I've got a long way to go until I'm ready for that to happen. Lord Jesus come, but maybe no so soon. Amen.

Readings for Advent 1, Year C

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

November 19, 2009

Jesus as the Restorer

Sunday's are always a blur. Two services, Sunday school, breakfast, coffee hour, and almost 200 people are a lot to keep up with. It is with that in mind that I tell you that somebody talked to me, I think at coffee hour, about how changing our focus from "the end" to our new beginnings is aided by holding up Jesus as the Restorer.

I had forgotten that conversation until this morning as I read the Collect for Sunday.

"Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

The writers of the Collects most assuredly took the role of "namer of God's attributes" very seriously, and so it is not a mere coincidence that God is described on Christ the King Sunday (the ultimate ending and new beginning Sunday) as God, whose will it is to restore all things.

Think about that. God's will is to restore all things in Jesus. It isn't about whether or not I make it to heaven, but about bringing all of Creation back into its former glory. It is about relationships. It is about ecology. It is about spending. It is about justice. And yes, it is about salvation too. Ultimately, the end and with it the New Heaven and the New Earth is all about restoration; wholeness.

Christ as King is a little hard for us to understand, but Christ as Restorer, that I can begin to wrap my mind around.

O God, if it is indeed your will to restore all things in your Son, I pray that you find in me enough good parts and a clear enough picture of the original to begin that work today. Amen.

November 18, 2009

From Philosphy to Practice and Back Again

I love my lectionary Bible Study. We are a wild and wooly bunch of priests, pastors, and licensed lay preachers who are passionate about our traditions, sure of our theologies, and loving all at the same time. For those of you who went to seminary with me, you'll be shocked to know I'm probably the most liberal member of our group, and this week that almost got me in trouble.

The gospel lesson for Sunday is all about truth. For whatever reason the lectionary folk decided to skip the last line of the interaction between Pilate and Jesus. You know, the one where Pilate asks, "What is truth?"

That amazingly complex question took us deep down a philosophical rabbit hole. I mean deep. I won't bore you with the details, but it involved Jehovah's Witnesses, Jamaican Rum Cream, and capitalization. Anyway, Dr. Jay brought us around to the fact that a philosophical conversation from the pulpit is pretty darn worthless and when it came down to practical preaching, my thought is this.

One of the earliest creedal (and political) statements that followers of Jesus made was, "Jesus is Lord." This meant that Caesar wasn't. This also is a totally foreign concept to 21st century Americans. We've got a President when can vote out of office in 4 years. We've got a government we can openly question. We wrote Kings and Queens out of our Prayer Book 230 some years ago. We don't get Lord, King, Reign, etc.

So I think the task of preacher this week is to translate for the congregation what it means that Jesus is Lord. Not based on other creeds, not based on theological presuppositions like the Virgin Birth, but based on real ways of living. If Jesus is Lord that means nothing else; money, sex, power, xbox, meth, winning - nothing else can be Lord if Jesus is Lord.

November 17, 2009

Psalm 109.8 and the King of kings

The part of my job that I like the least is the fact that I have to stay current with the news. All of it. I end up having to listen to a whole lot of talking heads in order to get my "news" and that makes my head hurt. And so, yesterday I began to hear rumblings of the Psalm 109.8 Obama bumper sticker flap. Apparently, some marketing whiz printed up some bumper stickers that say

Pray for Obama
Psalm 109.8

And Psalm 109.8 says, "May his days be few, may another take his place of leadership"

Kinda funny if you ask me. Misses the entire point of Psalm 109 and is one verse away from landing somebody in jail for threats against the President, but still kind of clever, even if I don't agree with it.

Anyway, the theological point of this whole flap is very timely. This Sunday the Church celebrates Christ the King. We pledge our allegiance to someone whose tenure is defined by the whim of the American public and the success or failure of his cleverly cloaked partisan politics. (BTW if Obama ever suggests a flat tax and the Republicans balk, my head will explode). We may be Americans, subject to all rights and privileges and laws thereof, but our kingdom is not of this world. Our rule of law is higher yet. Our leader is one who knows no nation, race, or probably even creed.

Jesus, the crucified one, is our King, and that means that we have been set free from sin in order to do good works. Unfortunately, most of us liked our sin (if only we were back in Egypt) and we spend most of our life fighting with it rather than doing the work of the Gospel. But still, no matter who is in office or for how long (Psalm 109.8) our King reigns for ever.

Readings for Christ the King, Year B

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19)
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one god, now and for ever. Amen.

November 16, 2009

The End - five15 Convo Starter

Click here to see the .pdf version of our conversation starter at five15 on Saturday evening. The notes follow all the slides.

November 15, 2009

sermon for proper 28B

There are very few cultural similarities between America in 2009 and the streets of first century Palestine. I mean, of course there are some universals that still exist; the desire to be accepted, the need to be safe, Maslow's hierarchy stuff, but in reality there are very few things that we think of on a day to day basis that concerned the minds of Jesus' disciples. This is what makes the job of the preacher so difficult; turning ancient references and idioms into something that makes sense for our lives today. I think that's why the prayer for today was originally written. Unless we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the holy scriptures, they aren't going to do much teaching. We must spend time with them, listening to their still living voice to speak truth into our lives.
This Sunday, however, is different. This Sunday we deal with something that has been at best a fascination and at worst an obsession for humanity since probably the first dinner Adam and Eve had outside of the Garden of Eden. What about the end? What happens when this long strange trip is over. Where will I go when I die? What will become of the world at the end of its useful life? Be it the 2012 doomsday clock or the Left Behind series of books and movies or some of those crazy apocalypse cults that spring up from time to time, it seems as though we are constantly reminded that there will be an end, and most of us have given at least some thought to what it might look like.
And knowing that everyone ponders the end at one time or another, there have been frauds, hoaxes, liars, and money makers waiting in the wings to take advantage of susceptible minds worried about the end. They read the newspapers and listen to the news and read the prophets and seers of old and will tell you down to the minute when it'll all come to naught, and suggest that you buy their book or their prayer cloth or their DVD series to better understand how, why, and, most importantly, when it'll all happen.
We find ourselves this morning in the waning hours of the Tuesday in Holy Week. Jesus has had a series of run ins with the religious authorities that ended with the sad story of the widow giving her whole life to the treasury. As they left the Temple that evening, the Disciples have to be feeling the weight of it all. They have been pretty hard headed up until now, but surely after the day they just had they know that Jesus is in a heap of trouble. Almost as if to change the subject one of them looks up and says, “Hey Jesus, look at how big these rocks are that make up these huge buildings. That's some amazing engineering work. Can you imagine the effort that went into making this Temple?”
Jesus, however, is not up for idle chit-chat. He too feels the pressure building. There isn't much time, and so he has to teach his followers everything he can before it is too late. “Yep, they are certainly big,” Jesus responds, “but someday there won't be stone left on top of another. It'll all come down some day.”
You can hear the air go out of the collective group. “Geez Jesus, what's with the buzz kill. This is hard enough as it is, we don't need you spouting doomsday nonsense.” But after some time, as they sit on the Mount of Olives and look over the city of Jerusalem, four of his disciples are ready to hear more. They had thought about the end. They thought were going to war with the Romans, surely they had given thought to the destruction and death that would come with it. But the Temple being thrown down, that sounded more serious than even they had imagined. And so, they, like us, are curious to know more. “When will it happen? How will we know its starting?”
Jesus' answer is simple, yet so often misunderstood. “Watch Out!” he says. The call to beware, to watch out, isn't to be on the lookout for signs of the end, but rather to protect ourselves from those who claim the end is near. Those who claim to speak for God, the great I AM, and say, it is finished. They'll see wars and hear rumors of wars; they'll read about earthquakes and famines, and they'll say that they are signs of things to come. But wars and earthquakes and famine are as old as our wondering about the end. These things happen. They happen a lot. Watch out for those who, for a price, will tell you the end is coming soon, and instead focus on what happens next. Life is full of ends. It is the beginnings that matter.
“These things,” Jesus says, “are just the birth pangs. They are the necessary pain that happens when something new is being born. They are not to be feared, but they must be endured in order for new life to be born. In referencing birth pangs, Jesus is calling on a fairly worn image of the end of time. Most ancient religions used it because it was a well known image. “Jesus' disciples would have known more about birthpangs than even many modern women. In the ordinary world of the ancient Middle East, and many other places even today where epidurals and C-Sections aren't commonplace, birthpangs were known and understood because they happened in their full glory in the one room your house had. Mom or Aunt or Cousin or Sister had given birth without the glories of modern medicine.” (NT Wright, 177) So when Jesus says, “birthpangs” everyone gets the reference.
But birthpangs end. And with their end comes new life.
Our passage from Mark ends in the labor and delivery room, but we all know the story continues. With new life comes all sorts of new lessons. As Cassie and I have heard many a time, “your life will never be the same after a baby.”
The same is true of life after the end. It won't be the same. But I think we get a glimpse of what that life looks like in the Letter to the Hebrews. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus paved a new way of living. He is our example of new life. Life that is lived “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” A life that finds “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” A life of baptism in which we die to ourselves and live only for Christ. A life where our sin is continuously washed clean so that we may enter over and over again into new life in Christ Jesus.
Practically speaking that life is one in which we are constantly provoking one another to love and good deeds. It is a life in which we gather together continuously for fellowship, prayer, and most importantly encouragement. It is a life where the faithful gather, over and over again, not in disappointment or worry over the Second Coming, but in joyful expectation and hope for a totally new life; one where these things are possible all the time, one where the power of sin and death have been overcome for ever.
It is so easy to get bogged down by doomsday prophecies and countdown clocks. Maybe you'd rather just sit and wait and worry about how and when the end will come. But Jesus is clear that this is not how we are called to live our lives. We are called not to a life of fear and worry but to lives of faithful service and encouragement. As followers of the new way paved by Jesus we should be on the lookout for false prophets and protective of those susceptible to their money grubbing ways. But most importantly, we are called to listen to the living Word of God and to do his will each and every day.
The bumper sticker in the Parish Hall that says, “Jesus is coming. Look Busy” used to make me angry, but now I get it. Don't sit pining away about the end, but rather keep up the work of the Gospel. Keep up the practice of encouragement because the end of the birthpangs and the beginning of new life is coming, one way or another, sooner or later.
There aren't many worries that stretch all of human history, but The End is certainly one of them. Jesus calls us not to worry but to good works. May the Scriptures be alive to you today as they call us all to follow the new path paved by Jesus that leads to eternally new life. Amen.

November 12, 2009

Watch Out!

The lessons for Sunday are finally starting to come together for me. It is one of those Sundays where careful nuance seems to be required. As I read in one commentary article; don't take on LeHaye and Jenkins because you'll either sound like a condescending bully or a polite, well-intentioned bully.

So here's what I'm thinking. Jesus seems to be clear that we shouldn't be nosing around for "signs of the end." He tells us to "Watch out" not for the end of the world, but for those who claim it is coming; deceivers, money makers, liars. Catastrophic events happen, have happened, and will continue to happen throughout human history. Wars, earthquakes, famines; they happen, but it doesn't mean Jesus is rounding up his angel army. It means people are fighting. It means that the earth is under constant pressure. It means the haves will horde and the have nots will starve.

In referencing birth pangs, Jesus seems to be raising a common image, one of new birth. As far as I've read, it was one of the prevailing images of the apocalypse in ancient worlds. Anyway, here's where the nuance come in, I think that the letter to the Hebrews can expand on what Jesus is saying. The new birth that Jesus references is fleshed out by the author of Hebrews as a heart sprinkled clean and bodies washed with pure water.

Our response to that new, clean life, is a new way of living; one that isn't focused on self, but on the other - therefore ending famine. This life is one of provocation, not to anger, but to good works - thereby ending wars. God will have to take care of the earthquakes. It is a life where the faithful gather, over and over again, not in disappointment or worry over the Second Coming, but in joyful expectation and hope for a totally new life; one where these things are possible all the time, one where the power of sin and death have been overcome.

In the meantime, don't scan the papers for numbers or signs or names, but do the work of discipleship; receive forgiveness, press forward toward good works, gather together, and encourage one another. If this were the Modus Operandi of Christians everywhere, it might just be the end of days.

November 11, 2009

That Pesky Religion

Debra Dean Murphy over at the ekklesia project writes what so many of us are thinking:

"This week we are admonished to 'provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.' That’s the inconvenient thing about religion: it asks you to do stuff – like worship with other people, love other people, do good to and for other people."

I mean really. The demands of Christianity are just so freaking hard. [sarcasm noted]

Often the Christian faith is made to be difficult with the addition of all sorts of unnecessary and clearly power playing rules; don't dance, don't eat meat on Friday, don't drink, don't play Yahtzee on days beginning with "T", don't consort with non-Christians, don't whatever. But honestly it isn't all that hard. The author of Hebrews clearly thought that Jesus was a-comin' soon, and yet, he doesn't use that to his powerful advantage. Instead, he continues to encourage people to love God and love neighbor by provoking each other to good works and by getting together.

It may be pesky, but it sure ain't hard.

November 10, 2009

a late start

I'd like to that the busyness of preparations for TS Ida kept me from posting my thoughts on 28b yesterday, but that probably isn't true. It seems we have made it through with a lot of rain, but our coastal and river communities are all reporting in that things are OK. Thanks be to God for cold water, cool air, and a weakened Ida.

The real reason I didn't post yesterday has a lot more to do with the lessons that anything else. I must have read them 5 or 6 times yesterday. Each time, I started with the Collect and by the time I was finished I wasn't really sure that ALL holy Scripture had been written for our learning. Or better said, perhaps not all verses were meant to stand alone for Sunday morning lessons at certain times of the year.

The lesson from Mark, for example, makes little sense outside of the context of a) Holy Week, b) last weeks lesson, and c) the larger "Little Apocalypse" of Mark. So why have it? What purpose does it serve on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time (Next week is actually the end, but it is Christ the King Sunday and we don't have to wear green).

The semi-continuous reading from Hebrews is fascinating, and would do well for a Bible Study, but I just don't think it preaches. And Daniel, don't get me started on Daniel.

So there you have it. I'm getting a late start on sermon prep this week not because of any weather event or busyness of life, but because I have no clue as to where to start with these lessons. O God, help me to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these lessons so that I have something to say to your people.

November 9, 2009

Sermon for Proper 27B

This is a tough Sunday to be a preacher. There is a big elephant in the room as we hear the lesson of the Widow's Mite. It is stewardship time and by now you should have received your pledge cards in the mail. It seems almost criminal to not preach on stewardship when the Widow's Mite story is at our feet. But the question then comes, how do I preach it?
There are two popular interpretations of the gospel text for today; both of which put me in an awkward position. The first and perhaps most well known sermon on this passage revolves around the idea that the widow who offers her two copper coins should be the model of our giving to the Church. If I were to choose this interpretation I would stand in this pulpit as one whose lifestyle is dependent upon your generosity and say, “give more; give until you've got nothing left.” And that, is, a) not a fun thing to do and b) not at all what Jesus is saying in this passage.
The second possible interpretation is that Jesus is so angry at the Temple, its treasury and leadership that he is condemning the whole thing for taking the last of this widow's money – literally taking her whole life from her. If I chose this tack, I would stand in the pulpit as one whose lifestyle is dependent upon your generosity and say that all religious institutions are bad, they take your money to perpetuate themselves and make no real impact. This way of thinking is a) detrimental to my career and b) while it may be what Jesus has in mind, it is not quite so easily generalized.
So either I tell you to give all you've got or I tell you not to give at all – and both options, quite frankly, make me very uncomfortable. There has got to be another way; a middle road. For me, the middle way comes when I get out of the churchy-ness of the gospel and spend some time with Elijah in the coastal town of Zarephath (ZEREFATH).
King Ahab has just recently married Jezebel and with her arrival on the scene her nation's practice of worshiping the god Ba'al gets introduced into God's own land. Needless to say, God is not happy about these developments and begins to use his mouthpiece, Elijah, to call the people of Israel back to worship of him alone. After announcing a drought of three years, Elijah is led, by God, around the land living off the bounty given directly to him by God. Ultimately, he finds himself in the coastal community of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) where God has promised that widow would feed him.
The widow, it seems, didn't get that Email. She is glad to get Elijah a drink, but a morsel of food? Well that is impossible. She is collecting sticks in order to build a fire and bake some bread from the last of her meal and oil so that “she and her son might eat it and die.” It doesn't sound like this Phoenician woman has heard the message of Israel's God. And yet she is somehow swayed by the prophet. His words of assurance, “thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
Now here's the amazing thing. She goes and does just as Elijah said. This woman of Phoenician origin. A woman who has no reason to believe this Hebrew nomad. A woman whose beliefs have nothing to do with the LORD the God of Israel. A woman who had no reason to trust anyone. She and her son were on their last leg, having been forgotten by family, government, and religion alike. Her generosity was not out of guilt. It didn't come from the pressure of an institution. Her willingness to give came only by way of a word from a stranger on behalf of a God that she didn't believe in. And yet she gave. Sacrificially, she gave. And her reward wasn't 1000x or 100x or even 10x. Her reward was this: the oil and the meal lasted as long as she needed it to. She had what she needed for as long as she needed it.
You may be thinking, OK, here's where the stewardship sermons starts. But you are wrong. This text has nothing to do with stewardship. It has to do with faith. God doesn't want your stuff. He doesn't need it. What he wants is your heart. He wants you to trust him enough to give up everything – even down to your last drop of oil and handful of meal – so that he can replace it with fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. The problem for most of us is, we don't know desperation – we don't know what it is like to have nothing to hold on to. Most of us have never been where the widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) is. Most of us don't know what it is to not know where our next meal would come from. Most of us don't know what it is like to not be able to provide for our children. Most of us just aren't there. And therefore, most of us don't know how to trust like the widow in our story. To steal a turn of phrase from Jesus, We trust out of our abundance – holding comfortably onto all we have. She trusted out of her poverty – hands wide open ready to accept anything that came her way.
Now, I understand, the recession's only been over for like a week. I know that the market is still working its way back to the overinflated numbers of the late 90s and mid-2000s. I know talking about our abundance is still kind of awkward, but honestly, most of us are so ridiculously well off we don't know what to do with ourselves. Take the Pankey family for example. With Cassie staying home to be with Eliza we are essentially a one income household. I make $54,220.08 a year. That makes me one of the richest people in the world. I am in the top 1%. Cassie and I have made the decision to give 10% away. We give two-thirds of our tithe to St. Paul's and one-third to a school and development organization our friend has started in the slums of Kenya. Our tithe is about $5400, if we were to pay it to a person, would put that person in the richest 14.3%. Our tithe is richer than 85.7% of the world's population; our tithe is richer than 5.99 billion people. If we were to measure only by money, we certainly could claim to have an abundance.
But what we have even more of are the things that are important. Relationships, laughter, joy, faith, love. In these things we are far richer than we can even imagine. And it is these things that God desires from us. God wants everything from us. He want our whole life: from Monday to Sunday and back again. He wants our relationships, he wants our work, he wants our minds, he wants our hearts. He wants us to hand everything over to him, trusting in HIS abundance, knowing that even when we give him everything, we will have all that we need.
But in addition to all the good stuff, he'd like you to hand over the ugly stuff as well. We prayed this morning for the ability to purify ourselves as Jesus himself is pure. God would like nothing more than for us to remove all the impurity in our lives, so that he's got all that's left – all that's good - for himself. But just like the Pur filter in my refrigerator, I can only muster at best a 99.9% purification rate. (Probably more like 75% on a good day or maybe, on my bad days, 50%). And so, God wants us to hand over the ugly stuff too. He'll take it so that you can be made clean, made whole, made his.
It has nothing to do with money or oil or corn meal. God doesn't need any of it. What we learn from the widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) is that God wants our trust. And trust is only really available in relationship. We gain trust only be getting to know the other better. Sure, we can offer blind faith like the widow, but the good stuff comes over a lifetime of trusting and being trusted; giving and receiving. It this were a stewardship sermon, which it is not, this would be the key. It is about trusting the Lord's abundance. It is about removing the direct line between your giving and the church budget. It is about your trusting God enough to give him everything AND the church trusting God enough to give him everything too. Those pledge cards you got in the mail are helpful. They do help keep the lights on and pay salaries. But what they really do is free up the 500 block of North Pine Street and the lives of Steve Pankey, Keith Talbert and Karla Harmon for full-time service on your behalf. Your tithe might keep the wheels turning, but the other 90% brings the kingdom of God to earth each and every day.
So this morning I beg of you. Don't be like the widow Jesus saw in the Temple and give the church everything you've got out of guilt or fear. And, on the same token, don't let the church die just because it is an institution in need of funds. But give to God your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength. Trust your whole life to him and spend your money and your time and your talents where He thinks they are best suited because as the Lord provided for the Widow of Zarephath (ZEREFATH) he will provide for you and for me and for this Church. All he asks for in return is everything. Amen.

Readings for Proper 28, Year B

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

November 5, 2009

What we are not...

helps us define who we are.

As I said in Tuesday's post, Jesus seems pretty clear about the stuff we should not do; the type of people we should not be. I always struggle with negative definitions. You could spend days defining what something is not, and not even be close to shoring up what it is. It seems to me that definitions of what we are not should help us define who we are.

And so that is, I think, what we will do at five15 this weekend. We will begin the work of defining who we are. And there seems no better place to begin that conversation than in the Psalm. It has a beautiful trajectory from negative to positive. It flows from sinfulness to redemption. In defining who God is, it defines who we are called to be.

[The LORD] gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

7 The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

8 The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

And so we too are called to be justice seekers. We are called to feed he hungry and set the prisoners free. We are called to open the eyes of the (at least the spiritually) blind and lift up those who are laid low. Because we are the body of Christ. We are God's hands and feet and if we really believe that then we have no choice but to live into the work of God. As our prayer says, we are to be like him. Who we are is so much nicer than what we are not.

November 4, 2009

Stewardship vs. Sacrifice

At lectionary group yesterday Scott raised an interesting point. One which I've chewed on for 24 hours now. Scott is big on language, wanting us always to be careful of what we say and how we say it, and so he takes issue with Stewardship.

"We are not stewards of time, talent, and treasure. We are stewards of Jesus' ministry."

And he's right. Jesus didn't leave his disciples with instructions about how to order themselves as Church, how to raise funds, how to make promotional fliers, or how to get volunteers. Jesus told them to preach the good news and baptize. The rest, the administrative stuff, well that is mostly just a continuation of the Temple.

But Scott didn't stop there, and that's dangerous. Because, he notes, the origin of the Biblical tithe was not food for the priests or coin for the treasury, but burnt sacrifice. He's probably not the first to say this, but the first I've heard admit it.

"If we were going to be true to the basis of the biblical tithe, we give 10%, in cash, and burn it, and then raise the money to run the church."

The problem, it seems to me, is that we see a direct line between my pledge card and the budget of the church. Thus our giving is to the church and not to God. Instead, if we saw our role in life as Stewards of the Gospel and our giving as sacrifice to God, the Church would be an entirely different place. One not worried about mortgage payments or salaries (stipends - another big language thing for Scott). We'd find a church run amuck, doing Kingdom work, whether or not the money was there.

We'd see the Kingdom of God.

November 3, 2009

Mark 12:38-40 or Why I am a Low Churchman

Jesus seems to be pretty clear about his expectations for religious leaders. Or at least he is clear in what he thinks they should not do. They should not be prideful. They should not wear garments so as to set themselves apart. They should not expect to be greeted with praise and honor on the streets and in the marketplace. And at parties, they should be in the back, allowing guests of higher honor to have the best seats.

As I've said before, I consider myself a soft literalist when it comes to the Bible. Do I think the earth was created in seven literal days? No. Do I believe that God provided enough for Elijah, the widow, and her son? Yep. Do I think that Jesus said what the Gospels tell us he said? You betcha.

And so, if I believe that Jesus said these things, I think that I should probably take them to heart. I wear a long white robe on Sunday mornings because it is the cultural expectation of our community. I wear a collar from time to time, not to be greeted with honor, but sometimes to grease the wheels of the medical establishment, and sometime to offer comfort those who will be in my presence. On Friday I will sit at a head table by invitation, not by assumption.

But for the most part, I try to avoid these things. Because, for me and my personality, to get caught up in the robes and collars and honor and praise would cause me to stumble, and, quite probably, devouring widows houses with my need for more. The materialist game is an easy trap for me, so I do my best, even in the Church, to avoid it at all costs.

Mark 12:38-40 is why I am a low churchman. Any high church priests out there with a counter theology?

November 2, 2009

All Saint's five15 Convo

Here is the link to the slideshow and notes for our five15 conversation on All Saints' Day.

Dear Stewardship Season,

I thought we had an agreement. I told you I needed some space. You said you understood. You said you'd wait for me to call. It really isn't you. It is me. I just need some time. Can you not understand that? Instead, you appear in full force in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons? It is so not like you to be so pushy.

Me <3

Here's the thing about the texts for this weekend. They have nothing to do with money. The oil, the meal, the money, they are all metaphors for something much larger; something much more important.

God wants everything from you. He wants your whole life: from Monday to Sunday and back again. He wants your relationships, he wants your work, he wants your mind, he wants your heart. He wants you to hand everything over to him, trusting that he we give you everything you need.

He wants you to purify yourself, to remove all the impurity, so that he's got all that's left for himself. But, just like the Pur filter on my refrigerator, you can probably only muster a 99.9% success rate in the purification department. And so, he wants you to hand over even the ugly stuff so that he can make you clean, make you whole, make you his.

That's all. Just everything. And in exchange, he offers life, abundant life, full life, joyous life. Seems a decent trade to me. So don't let stewardship season back into your life, let God back in. It is so much better to give him everything.

Readings for Proper 27, Year B

This will be my first week leading the conversation on Saturday and preaching on Sunday. Should be interesting. But I am extremely grateful to Father B. who will take Wednesday's off my shoulders for the next two weeks.

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

October 29, 2009

a quick thought on language

For every week (at least) there is a prayer (The Collect) assigned that may have, at one time, in someone's mind, worked with the theme of the lessons for that week. This week's Collect works. It is All Saints' Day and so, quite obviously, the prayer deals with the Saints. What I find interesting is how often there are words in these prayers that even I, a master's level educated, ordained Priest have to look up.

I understand that I'm not a very literate person. I don't like to read, I find it difficult to do, and so I am at a disadvantage when it comes to vocabulary. But. But, I still think that there is a lot of language thrown around in the Church that is assumed to be understand, and isn't.

For our five15 service we are using the Collect, offering a prayer on behalf of the whole Church, knowing that with 24 hours tens of millions of people will offer the same (well at least a similar prayer). I've taken to rewriting the Collect in an effort to help them be better understood. I just can't ask people to say "Amen" to something they haven't understood. It is like agreeing to a contract that you haven't read.

This week's example is the word "ineffable." I got a text message from my sister when Chase Utley hit his second home run last night that simply said, "no effing way!" I think the root is being used in two very different ways, but again because I have no idea what "ineffable" means, I can't be sure, and as such I don't think my congregation can either.

Ineffable actually means "beyond description" and so our prayer is that we might come to know the joy beyond words prepared by God for those who love him. Yeah, Amen, I want some of that. The other eff? No thanks.

How do you handle the issue of language in your church? What sort of translation do you offer to the various generations who make up your congregation? And beyond word choice in, say, The Collect, how do you make you sermons "speak" to everyone? Language is important. It can do damage or it can empower. It can welcome or it can exclude. It can teach or it can confuse. As those paid to do theology we must be diligent in our role as interpreters for EVERYONE in our midst.

October 28, 2009

What or Who are Saints Anyway?

Every year I struggle with All Saints' Day. Actually, truth be told, most Wednesday's I struggle with it too. In my tradition we celebrate Saints like Jude, Simon, Paul, etc. We also remember saints like The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Crysostom (who the Roman Church honors as St. John Crysostom). And except for some changes in the stuff that doesn't really matter; altar hangings, stoles, etc., we don't make a difference between the two.

So what's the difference between Saint and a saint and let's say me? Is there a difference in the Episcopal Church between a Major Feast Saint and a lesser feast saint and one who has died in the faith and one who still lives the faith on earth?

And if there is, who do we remember on All Saint's Day anyway? Do all the Saints need another day when they each have one of their own (or they might share it with another Saint)? Do all the saints need another when they have a lesser feast of their own (which they too might share)? Do those who have gone to paradise already need a day? Do we who still engage the great ordeal every morning need a day?

I'm leading the conversation at five15 this week, and I hope that people will help me answer these questions. What is a Saint? Who is a saint? And what's the deal with All Saints' anyway?

Do we remember those who have done great things or those who perished as though they had never been born? Do we honor those who have lived the beatitudes to a "T" or those who struggled every day in the great ordeal? These are the things I struggle with.

The Rt. Rev. Keith Whitmore, assisting Bishop of Atlanta (is there such a thing as an assisting Bishop aren't they all bishops (and does that make +Neil an Assisted Bishop?)?) has a good piece over at Day1 that is worth perusing on this topic - check it out.

October 27, 2009

the great ordeal

I am not a scholar of the Revelation. I haven't read the Left Behind series. I'm not afraid of 2012. I don't so much care about how or when the world will end. I have two reasons for this. The first, every minute of every day the world as we know it comes to an end. Someone dies, someone is born, science finds something new, God reveals something, whatever it is, it is constantly happening. So the world ends like every millisecond or so. The other reason is that Jesus told me not to worry about it. What's that bumper sticker say? The Bible says it. I believe it.

This all came to mind today as I read that famous passage from the 7th chapter of the Revelation of John; you know the one year hear at funerals all the time. For the first time today I found myself wondering about the "great ordeal" and thinking, "you know what, I'm betting that has nothing to do with an apocalypse or the rapture." It seems to me, awake 15 minutes before my alarm by a hungry baby, planning 2 weddings and a funeral along with the regular flow of our liturgical life, busy at home with grocery shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, paying bills, budgeting money, etc. etc. etc. It seems to me that life itself is "the great ordeal." We are in a constant struggle against what the world would tell us to do and to be that quite frankly I don't think we need some super-cosmic-battle-royal to convince us to wash our robes clean in the blood of the lamb.

Life's hard enough without lakes of fire and seven headed beasts. So, let's make a pact. Let's agree to work together to survive this "great ordeal" so that in the end, whenever and however that may be (again I don't care) we can say, as a community with Jesus as our head we survived. Thanks be to God.

October 26, 2009

they perished as though they never existed

St. Paul's lost a saint this week. J didn't show up to setup for coffee hour with her friends and they were worried. Two people drove to her house to check on her and found her on the floor. No one is sure how long she was there. Medical intervention kept her alive for five more days while they tried to figure out what happened. Her own strength kept her alive for four hours after life support was removed. But at about 1:45 Friday afternoon, J died.

Her friends will remember her.

Her nieces and nephews will remember her.

Her church will remember her.

But J, like so many others, will someday be forgotten. She has gone on to paradise and awaits the Resurrection of the Dead, but as the author of Ecclesiasticus says, she "perished as though [she] had never existed." No state funeral. No eternal flame in Arlington. No sightings at her elaborate Memphis home. No helicopters following her body to the ME's office.

J, a saint in our church and a saint in the Church, has died, without fanfare. But the promise remains true - her glory will never be blotted out. This is why we read from the BCP Lectionary this week. This is why we celebrate all life. This is why when I stand at the altar and celebrate the Eucharist, J's name will be on my heart as I pray that one day we might join all the Saints, even those who have long since been forgotten, in the joy of God's eternal kingdom.

Readings of All Saints (BCP1)

TKT has decided we're using the BCP1 Lectionary for All Saints'. And I don't blame him, the lesson from Ecclesiasticus is a must read.

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 149

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen

October 25, 2009

Sermon for Proper 25B

As the month of October comes to a close so too does our six-week journey with Jesus and his disciples. We've been all over Galilee, The Decapolis, Samaria, and find ourselves this morning fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem on the outskirts of Jericho. The action has been swift all through Mark's Gospel, but the pace quickens as our journey comes to an end. We spend all of one sentence, four words, in Jericho, and then we are off, on the road, on the Way to Jerusalem. The road is packed with pilgrims headed along the same journey; trying to make it to Jerusalem for The Passover. Babies are crying. Children are laughing. Teenagers are flirting. Adults are chatting. Animals of all sorts make noises of all kinds. And in the midst of it all, there is a man, a blind man, who takes center stage.
The road is busy, but the excitement must reach a crescendo as Jesus approaches. How else would the blind man know that the itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth was passing by? Four words describe Jesus' time in Jericho, but details the likes of which Mark has yet to use tell the story of Jesus' interaction with a blind man on the road outside of Jericho. Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting on the roadside.
Here is the first detail – a name. Bar-Timaeus which means the son of Timaeus which means either “the unclean one” or “the highly-prized one.” Which to me, means that a transformation is about to take place. We're about to see the Son of the Unclean One become the Son of the Highly-Prized One right before our very eyes.
Bartimaeus cries out, as loud as he can, above the hustle and bustle of the crowded highway, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” And the crowd barks at him, “Shut up! Jesus is on his way to invade Jerusalem, he is on his way to glory, he doesn't have time for the likes of you, Son of the Unclean One.” Undeterred, Bartimaeus shouts even louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Here is the second detail – a title. Son of David is not Jesus' title of choice in Mark. It is way too political. It is along the lines of what the misguided crowd expects; a Messiah who will overthrow the Roman occupiers. It is this sort of title that got Peter called Satan. It is this concept of Messiah that made James and John look so foolish. Yet here it comes from the lips of the least. The beggar on the side of the road, one whose standing in life is no different under Roman rule as it would be if the Jews were back in power. Bartimaeus is crying out to the Messiah; God's appointed one for help and healing not for a place in his cabinet.
In the midst of the noise. As if he were existing somehow outside of the ruckus, Jesus hears the cry of the blind beggar Bartimaeus and stops. “Call him here,” Jesus tells those closest to him. And so the large crowd, all those who had worked to stifle the man's pleas turn to him and say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet and came to Jesus.
Here is the third detail – an action. The NRSV tells us that Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, but most translations say that he cast it aside; there are very few days in Jericho where one would need to wear a cloak as an outer-garment. In reality, what Bartimaeus did was throw his cloak away. The Son of the Unclean One is claiming a miracle before it even happens. He knows that after his encounter with Jesus he will be made whole, he will no longer be unclean, a beggar, reliant on the harsh streets. He will soon be Son of the Highly Prized One. Soon he will be washed clean. Soon he will be made whole. And so he casts off everything of his old life. His cloak; his suitcase; his wallet; his everything – he throws it away knowing that he will never return to begging on a roadside again.
Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “what do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “My teacher, let me see again.”
Here is the fourth detail – an adverb - again. At one time, Bartimaeus could see, but now he can't. Something happened; an illness, an injury, an accident; something happened and it took away Bartimaeus' ability to see. In the worldview of a first century Jew this is a punishment; no two ways about it. In Jewish theology of the 1st century, losing his ability to see was God's way of teaching Bartimaeus a lesson. He had been cutoff from the God of all Creation. God's blessings were no longer available to him. This was not the case of a man born blind, wherein the sin might have been his parents or his grandparents. The only person Bartimaeus had to blame for his blindness was himself. And he wants desperately to be restored. Sure, to see again would be nice. I'm sure he misses the sight of his family, of the beautiful pomegranates and figs that grow in abundance near Jericho. I'm sure being able to physically see would be nice. But what Bartimaeus really wants is to no longer be the Son of the Unclean One. He wants to be restored to wholeness. He wants to be fully human, able to receive God's blessing, able to see the beauty of his Creation, able to see; really see AGAIN.
Jesus responded to him, “Go: your faith has made you well.” Immediately, he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Here is the last detail – a verb - to follow. The healing of Blind Bartimaeus is the final healing miracle in that Jesus performs in the Gospel of Mark. We have experienced him healing other blind people, casting out demons, and raising the dead to life. He has performed healing by touch and healing from afar. He has healed all kinds of people; young, old, rich, poor, men, women, Jews and Gentiles. And, at least as far as Mark tells us, not one of them has responded to their miracle by following Jesus. The last stop on the journey; the last healing in the story; Blind Bartimaeus is able to see again and follows Jesus on the way. Which leads us the detail after that. The way that they are headed is not to the throne, but to the cross. Our journey ends on the precipice of Holy Week. Bartimaeus and his new found crew will reach Bethphage and Bethany where Jesus will mount a donkey and ride into Jerusalem on the Sunday before he dies. Bartimaeus is about to see some things that he never expected.
The question that keeps coming up for me in Mark's surprisingly detailed treatment of the healing of Bartimaeus is this: What obstacle keeps me from following Jesus on the way? For Bartimaeus in his time and in his culture is was his blindness. For him it meant that God's love had left him. What makes me blind? Money? Power? Lust? Envy? Greed? What sort of mercy do I need to cry out to Jesus for?
And then, when he stops and calls me to come to him, what do I need to throw away to accept his blessing? What do I keep trying to hold onto that keeps me from being able to spring up at a moment's notice and follow him? What weighs me down? Insecurity? Laziness? Lowered Expectations? Guilt? Or maybe I don't really dislike my blindness all that much. Maybe I'm slow to respond to Jesus because I think things are better just the way they are.
No matter the reasons for not following Jesus, Mark makes it clear that Bartimaeus – the Son of the Highly Prized One should be our role model. As we seek after Jesus, we are as blind men and women sitting by the road, calling out to him. When he stops and calls us, we must be able to throw everything else aside and run to him. When he heals, we should be prepared to follow him to places much darker, to situations much scarier, on journeys must more dangerous. For it is at the foot of the cross that we find Jesus glorified. It is in death that he is crowned King. It is in suffering that he restores us to our full humanity.
Our journey to Jerusalem may be ending, but the real trip – the lifetime of walking with Jesus through good times and bad – well that odyssey is just fixin' to start.If only you will cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Amen.