February 26, 2009

Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Fasnacht Day

Tuesday evening was a time of transition as we marked the end of the Season of Epiphany and prepared for the new Season of Lent. Down here, in the shadow of Mobile, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the US, the pancake supper concept that is so prevalent in the Northeast is a little lost. Yet, we were able to gather as a community of about 45 for A Shrove Tuesday pancake supper and prayers event at St. Paul's.

The evening began, as it should, with lots and lots of pancakes, made from scratch.I then did a quick teaching on the meaning of the day and our reason for giving up the word Alleluia for Lent.
We then processed the Alleluia banners into the Nave and buried them under the altar.Then we opened up time to engage the three prayer stations that marked the transition from light and Epiphany to ashes and Lent. HT to Anne for finding the inspiration.

The first was a station at the font; where, with the sign of the cross, we remembered that though our sins seem monumental, they have been washed clean in the waters of baptism.

The second was at the altar, where we used glow-sticks to write in a pile of ashes words of praise and thanskgiving; alleluia being one of them, knowing that for some people Lent comes just as they are ready to praise God again for the first time.

The third station was a reminder that for some the call to justice and peace is what has gone up in ashes. We took home a bag of ash with a small piece of palm to remind us of our call to work for justice for those who cannot, and that the King of kings has ensured our victory.

We then followed the Bapitsmal Candle outside where we burned palms and alleluias and watched the flames and smoke rise up with our words of praise to God.

Looking back, it should have been a little more joyful and a little less somber, but for a first attempt at marking this important transition, I think we did rather well.

February 24, 2009

The Awkward Pause

I am beginning to run into texts I've preached on before. Sometimes it reminds me of something I came across in research. Sometimes it makes me realize how much I've developed as a preacher. Sometimes it is just fun. The latter is the case this week as I got to re-read my favorite sermon that nobody got. Well, some people got it, I'm sure, but only the people who didn't get it said anything.

In researching for Lent 1B I came across an article by Robert Alter that told the story of awkward pauses in the Hebrew Bible. I found it fascinating, and I still think about it every time I read an Old Testament text with a conversation between the LORD and a human.

Here's the meat of that sermon from 3 years ago.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent; the first of seven awkward pauses in the season. As liturgical Christians we understand the idea of lent; it is a season of 40 days of penitence and self-reflection as we prepare ourselves for the recollection of God’s supreme act of love on Good Friday. What is interesting to me is that Sundays are not included in those 40 days. Sundays are an awkward pause. Our own Book of Common Prayer allows for this in the rubrics for Lent.

“The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial: Ash Wednesday and the other weekdays of Lent and of Holy Week, except the feast of the Annunciation.” (p. 17)

The six Sundays in Lent and the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th mark a period of rejoicing within a season of penitence. As Elton put so well last week, a lot can be learned through acts of fasting or the addition of a spiritual discipline during Lent. Much can also be learned in the awkward pauses and that which immediately follows.

The Old Testament lesson this morning has within it two awkward pauses. Old Testament Scholar Robert Alter notes that in verse 12 we see for the first time what will become a common convention in biblical narrative. When a speaker, in this case God, addresses someone and the formula for introducing speech is repeated with no response from the listener it generally means that the pause is significant, albeit awkward. As God addresses a flood-weary Noah in verses 8-11 God says some things that are hard for Noah to grasp.

God said, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

awkward pause - count to 10

Noah is not convinced. Within the awkward pause there is much to discern. Noah recalls the days upon days that he had spent on the ark scared to death of what his fate and the fate of his family might be. God recalls the sweet aroma of the burnt offering that Noah prepared upon the newly dry land. Noah needs reassurance. God wants to reassure.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

awkward pause count to 15

Here again, Noah resists what God is telling him. God, who merely a year ago was set to destroy all flesh, is now ready to make a covenant between himself and all living creatures? This is at best an awesome word of God, and at worst a terrible trick. And even if Noah is able to comprehend God’s covenant, the sign God chooses would have surely tripped Noah up. “I have set my bow in the clouds.” In the ancient world the rainbow was viewed as a weapon of Divine wrath.[1] Noah no doubt saw a rainbow or two during the 40 continuous days of rain that flooded the whole Earth. He understood that it was through this rainbow that God shot lightening bolts of judgment to earth. God turns Noah’s understanding upside down by offering the rainbow as a “sign of God’s ongoing, deep commitment to the life of the creation…”[2] During the flood, God remembered Noah and his ark on the waters. God will, each time he sees a rainbow, remember his covenant with all living creatures. God is making a hefty promise while requiring no further action from his Creation. But Noah needs to hear it one more time.

And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

This Lent God may turn you upside down. You may be struck by the power of God as you donate the money you would have spent at Starbucks to the Red Cross. You may come across a text of Scripture that you have never seen before and be challenged to learn more. God may pour down waters to flood your current five-year plan. Rest in the awkward pauses of Sunday, rejoice in the conversation with God Lent has afforded you, and reflect upon what God is saying. In the awkward pauses God will remember you, just as he remembered Noah and his companions on the ark. In the awkward pauses, God will remember the soothing scent of the offerings you have offered throughout Lent. Most importantly as you move from the awkward pause of Sunday back to penitential conversation of Lent, make sure you listen. Listen for what God is going to say next. Listen for the covenant of God. For God will reiterate, clear up, and move forward his covenant in conversation and in awkward silence.

[1] “Divine Approval” Synthesis (Lent 1, Year B, March 5, 2006).

[2] “Genesis” The New Interpreters Bible vol. 1, p. 400.

February 23, 2009

Hey! You remember Mark 1.9-15?

We've already heard most of this story. We heard the first half on the first Sunday after Epiphany - the Baptism. We heard the last verse with an expanded lesson on the third Sunday after Epiphany. This Sunday, the first in Lent, we combine them, and add a verse or two about Jesus' temptation in the desert.

Mark's version is so short it is almost comical.

"And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."

Imagine being in Mark's church. Imagine hearing only this about the Temptation. It leaves us with a lot of questions, and very few answers.
  • Why did the Spirit drive him to temptation?
  • Why the "wilderness"?
  • What did the temptations look like?
  • What does it mean that he was with the wild beasts?
  • How did the angels wait on him?
  • What is going on?
As we prepare for our annual 40 day journey into the wilderness I think it is important to ask these questions. What role does the Spirit play in our own holy Lent? Where is our wilderness? Will angels wait on us? What is going on? Lent may not be "fun" but it most certainly can be life-changing; if we let it. Likewise, Jesus' 40 days, about which Mark gives us only 33 words, was life-changing, if not history-of-the-world-altering. Quite frankly, I'm looking forward to the journey.

Readings for Lent 1, Year B

February 22, 2009

god of not enough... go away! - sermon for last epiphany

Our lessons for today tell the story of two gods. The first is a god that most of us know too well. This is the god Paul calls, the god of this world that is very intentionally begun with a lowercase "g". This god a blogger friend of mine calls, ""The toughest meanest lower case god ... the "god of not good enough" who offers all sorts of [flattery, promises, and cures] to assist you in becoming "good enough" through his 12 disciples: Success! Fame! Popularity! McMansions! This year's model! Thin! Beauty! And of course Addiction! Alienation! Cynicism! Fear of failure! And, last but not least, Greed.
"The god of not good enough always needs one more tithe. One more drink. One more new car. ... He seems to have a pulpit on every corner, every magazine cover, and every TV show. Maybe your mother or father was a follower, a priest even, and laid the gospel of "not enough" at your bedside every single day.
"It is very hard to see the good news offered by the other God, capital G, when following the god of not good enough. ... Because if you are blind to your own worth and value, you cannot understand how God could love you. His high priests tell you that you are worthless but that there is a new drug/iPod/Mac/car/job/liquor that will help you to finally be good enough, smart enough, lovable enogh. But of course it doesn't, it won't and it can't. There is always one more thing you have to do to earn your worth in the Church of Not Enough."
I know the god of not enough. I've spent a lot of time seeking his approval. I spent three years serving him in the church, in particular. Not that the church I served pressured me for more, but I pressured myself; more kids, more programs, more fun, more, more, more. Then one evening, seven years ago, I finally figured out that the god I was serving was the god of not enough.
One of the weaknesses of my personality is that I am emotionally underdeveloped; rarely will you see me show my emotions, and even more rarely am I able to express them. So, in those moments when I am in tune with my emotions, I really have to pay attention to them to figure out what is different. One of those times where my emotions just would not stay hidden was during my last official act as youth minister at St. Thomas' Church in Lancaster. We had taken a dozen or so kids on a mission trip to North Carolina during my last week, and at the program that finished up our time together, I came unglued. All of a sudden these kids were transfigured before my eyes.
Next to creating the Those Who Serve list, the job most vulnerable to the god of not enough is youth minister. You work with kids while hormones are raging, while independence is being fought for, while life is literally changing by the minute. It is often easier to see progress in terms of numbers rather than depth of relationship. It is, at times, nearly impossible to see that they might actually be responding to the work you've put so much effort into. On that night, however, I saw the glory of God in each of those kids. I was blessed to see the face of Christ looking back at me, even in the most frustrating kid. I met the second God from our lessons that night. I met God, with a capitol "G".
Peter, James, and John walked up a hill with a guy they knew. They knew Jesus well. Peter had just six days earlier called him "The Messiah." They got that there was something special about this man. They had dropped everything they owned to follow him. They had heard his teaching. They had seen him cast out demons. They saw a little girl come back to life. They fed five thousand people with five loaves and a couple fish. Peter, James, and John walked up a hill with a guy they knew well, but the god they were following in their hearts was still the god of not enough. In an instant on top of that mountain, they met Jesus face-to-face and saw who he really was; God. God with a capital G.
Eight-hundred years earlier Elisha met the LORD - capital L, capital O, capital R, and capital D - face-to-face because he refused to let his mentor, Elijah, leave him behind. Elisha followed him from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan - in the neighborhood of 50 miles of walking - not a short walk - because he knew that something special was going to happen. He knew that Elijah's spirit was in tune with the LORD's, and wanted a double portion of it. Together they walked on dry land through the Jordan River. Elisha watched as his friend rose to heaven on the chariot of fire. Elisha desired to meet the real LORD face-to-face, and so he sought after him relentlessly.
Paul had met our capital G God face-to-face on the road to Damascus. A couple of decades later, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth , he made his case for the church to get out of its own way and so that the unknowing could come to know God. He knew the power of the god - lower case g - of this world. The god of deception who blinds the minds of unbelievers. Paul's message was, "let them meet God - capital G - face-to-face.
Which god have you met face-to-face? Have you met the god of not enough? Do you spend your days striving to meet somebody else's dream for you? Or, have you met the LORD - all caps - of Israel? Have you met God - capital G - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Have you had your transfiguration moment? Where the veil of deceit was lifted away and you were finally able to see the world as it really is - the way it was meant to be?
Maybe your epiphany hasn't come just yet. That's OK. We're here to help you find it. Maybe this Lent will be your chance to pick away at the veil of this world so that you can finally meet God - the God of freedom, release, redemption, and renewal - face-to-face.
Seven years ago, I told the god of not enough that it was time for him to leave. For the first time, I was able to see that the God of abundance was working through me, even when I couldn't see the progress. My eyes were opened that night and the world was, if only for a moment, the way God intended it to be. My prayer for you this day, and throughout the upcoming season of Lent, is that you might get a glimpse, however fleeting, of the world as God meant it for you. May your veil be lifted and your world transfigured. Amen.

February 19, 2009

open windows & unlocked doors: lower case god

I may or may not get a full post up today, but I wanted to point you to the blog that made my sermon come together for this week.  Yay!

open windows & unlocked doors: lower case god

February 18, 2009

Relentless Pursuit

My brother-in-law is on a quest for knowledge.  At least he used to be, before he turned 21, know he's on a quest for beer labels.  Anyway, I though of him yesterday as I read the lessons for Sunday and was struck by Elisha's relentless pursuit of the holy.

I'm combining that thought with the story of the transfiguration.  Peter is not able to build the tents he wants, but he has know seen the glory of the Lord, and will, like Elisha, spare no expense in pursuit of seeing it again.

Where have we seen the glory of the Lord?  Or as my Rector asks, "When has God given us glimpses of the real world?"  At a Cursillo weekend?  An Alpha Course?  Bedside of a dying loved one?  At the altar?  In the midst of disaster?  In silence?  In noise?

The light of the world shines in many places, even and maybe most especially in the darkness.  Seeing that light is a blessing... and a curse, for having now known the glory of the Lord we can do nothing else but find it again.

February 17, 2009

What does that actually mean?

The Book of Common Prayer is full of beautiful words of prayer and praise to God. The 1979 version has in it the Collects (prayers) of the church year in both traditional (King's English) and contemporary language. The Collect for the Last Sunday after Epiphany reads like this:

Traditional - O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Contemporary -
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The changes aren't really that profound, which is shame because I'd really like to know what I'm praying for. What does it actually mean to "be changed into [Christ's] likeness from glory to glory"? It comes from "beholding by faith the light of his countenance" and countenance, at least in its OT references, comes from the Hebrew for face. It is a strange prayer. Peter, James, and John don't see the Transfiguration and make any reference to being changed such that they become more like Jesus. The OT lesson is all about how Elijah is a prophet like Moses. Maybe it has to do with Paul's letter in that by beholding the face of Jesus we each experience our own apocalypse as the veil of unknowing is lifted and we are invited into the dream of God, where all of humanity is made to look like Christ in word and deed. I don't know. I guess I'll be digging through more books today, trying to figure out what the collect for Sunday actually means.

February 16, 2009

What is the Church?

I have a friend, Sam, who reminds me often just how institutional I really am. I try really hard to break out of my tradition, but often end up back in the midst of Eucharistic Prayer A, bulletin in hand. His biggest pet-peeve is the use of the word "church." The absolute worst question you could ask Sam is "where is your church located?" Their building, where services are sometimes held can be found in Milton, FL, but their church, well that's located anywhere two or three are gathered in Jesus' name.

As anti-institutional as I claim to be, that transition from using church to mean buildings to church meaning people and ministry is tough - it the model I'm used to. However, there seems to be some biblical warrant for that change in, of all places, the story of the Transfiguration.

There is perhaps no more institutional lesson than the Transfiguration. It comes around on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany every year. It marks the transition from one season of "the church year" to another. The Collect (in my tradition) uses words like "countenance" and "from glory to glory." It is so wrapped up in the way things have always been it is scary. And yet, as Peter fumbles for words in the midst of such an awe-some sight, he shines a light on that perennial question, what is the church?

The Church is not three buildings on the top of the mountain where Christ was transfigured. The Church is not a building built upon the hill of Golgotha. The Church is not five buildings on the 500 block of Pine Street in Foley. The Church is a group of people striving after the Kingdom; doing the work to which they have been called. It is two or three meeting in a Cursillo group on a Saturday morning. It is 25 or 30 cooking, hosting, and staying overnight so that homeless families can get back on their feet through Family Promise. It is tens of millions across the globe praying for peace in the Holy Land. This is the Church.

I'm going to try and get better at differentiating the Church from its buildings. I'm not sure I'll ever fully make the switch, but, well, at least I'm trying.

Readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

February 11, 2009

Talk to Jesus and his people

I'm sorry I've been remiss about posting this week. I'm still recuperating from diocesan convention. Thankfully, my Rector made me take some extra time off on Monday. Helping out SHW who is now 7.5 months pregnant with her morning routine (mostly making lunch) has cut into my blogging time. Slowly, though, I'm adjusting, and will get back into a routine.

Still, today's post will be short, and it is thieved entirely from Dr. J. from my Tuesday morning lectionary group. His sermon title for this Sunday (why don't I title my sermons?) "Talk to Jesus."

Leprosy was (is) embarrassing, but the man in this story was willing to risk it all by stepping out and talking to Jesus. We have parts of our lives that are embarrassing. Am I willing to step out and talk to Jesus?

As the Body of Christ left on earth, the Church should approach these embarrassing parts of our lives with the same love and compassion. Is the Church willing to risk dealing with the ugly and scary stuff we all have? Do we trust the Church to handle these things with the same love and compassion Jesus offers the man with leprosy?

Tough stuff this week, but I think it is a call to be vulnerable (both sides) and talk to Jesus and his people about the stuff we think is embarrassing.

February 9, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany 5

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    “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” There are a lot of half verses of Paul that can lead a preacher into trouble, but none more dangerous, I think, than the second half of the twenty-second verse in the ninth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Maybe the danger factor plays into the fact that this is, by far, my favorite sentence of Paul’s. As I studied this piece of scripture this week, I made a rule on that “a preacher should never, ever, preach a sermon based solely on one-half of a verse of Paul,” and today I will all but break that rule because it is just so rich. This morning, I’d like to do something just a little different; so that I won't out and out break my rule. Instead of one sermon on a half verse of Paul, I’d like to give you three brief sermons all based on this half verse. You will, no doubt, be able to guess the one which I think is the better interpretation, but I believe all three, flawed as they may be, have something to teach us about the ministry of Paul, that is, in all actuality, each of our callings as well.

    Sermon #1 – What I have dubbed “The Inculturation Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” Over that past 2000 years there have been many ugly battles between Christians. Wars have been fought over church structure, worship formats, the role of the cross, and many, many, many other topics. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells them of his attempts to bring the gospel to a wide variety of people, who, for various reasons, heard the gospel in a wide variety of ways. To the Jews, his first converts, the good news of Jesus was that the Jews had been redeemed. In Jesus, God had restored the throne of David and in the second coming Rome would be overthrown. To the Gentiles, who came along later, the good news of Jesus was that all of humanity had been redeemed. When the curtain of the Temple tore in two, Jesus opened the very gates of heaven to everyone. To women, of particular concern for Paul, the good news of Jesus was that he came not to be served but to serve, thereby raising the role of the fairer sex to that of God himself. There was good news in Jesus for slaves, for the sick, for the lonely, for those in prison, and on and on. What Paul offered them was the ability to hear the gospel in their context, so that they could see the good news for themselves.

    Today, we must be willing to translate the good news for the wide variety of people, who, for various reasons, will hear the gospel in a wide variety of ways. Letting go of our need to be right about every nuance of faith, we must preach the good news of a God-who-loves to children who are abandoned. We should preach the good news of a God-who-restores to the alcoholic struggling to put her life back together. And, when it is necessary, we must be willing to wait patiently for the finer points of doctrine to come about, not excluding from the kingdom (as if we could) those who, for a variety of reasons, struggle with the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Trinity, etc. Like Paul, we must be willing to become all things to all people.

    Sermon #2 – Which I have named “The Evangelism Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines evangelism as “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ.”i As followers of Jesus Christ, we, like Paul, are called to preach the gospel to all people so that they might be saved through a personal commitment to Jesus. With well reasoned understanding and the Word of God, it is the job of the Christian, the evangelist, to preach the gospel to all nations. That means bringing the Word to Africa, to South America, to Asia, Australia, and all the ends of the earth. It means making the Son of God known in every language, and restoring all cultures to the vision for life that God has laid out in this holy Word. Becoming “all things to all people” does not mean bending to every whim of culture, but translating the prescriptions of God for world-wide consumption. For the people to whom we preach their very salvation is at stake. We must take this call seriously so that by all means, we might save some.

    Sermon #3 – I affectionately call this one “The Me Too Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” I promise you this, in the coming weeks and months, you are going to be downright sick of hearing about Rob Bell’s new book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Both Keith and I have read it over the past month, and it has, in many ways, re-framed the way we both look at the Church and the world. In the book, Bell quotes writer Anne Lamott “who says that the most powerful sermon in the world is two words: ‘Me too.’ Me too. When you’re struggling, when you are hurting, wounded, limping, doubting, questioning, barely hanging on, moments away from another relapse, and somebody can identify with you – someone knows the temptations that are at your door, somebody has felt the pain that you are feeling, when somebody can look you in the eyes and say, ‘me too,’ and they actually mean it – it can save you. When you aren’t judged, or lectured, or looked down upon, but somebody demonstrates that they get it, that they know what it’s like, that you aren’t alone, that’s ‘me too.’”ii

    Paul is notoriously wordy, but essentially he is saying to the Church in Corinth, "me too." I have been weak. I have been under the law. I have been made free from the law. I have been in all sorts of situations, and so I can sit with you in yours and say, "me too," while I share with you the hope that is within me; the good news that brought me out of my situation. And, as much as becoming all things requires a “me too” lifestyle of sitting and listening, it also calls for getting up, rolling up your sleeves, and getting to work. For us, becoming all things to all people, means becoming a teacher to those who want to learn. It means becoming a chef to those who need a meal. To the homeless we become a host.  To the prisoner we become cookie baker, worship leader, and prayer partner. To our neighbors we become a helping hand, a word of encouragement, or a pot of homemade soup.

    We become all things to all people, so that by all means, we might save some. And by save, I'm not necessarily concerned with eternal salvation - since only God can work that out.  By save I mean it in the way Paul wrote it, Sozo, - to bring to safety, to cure, to ensure salvation, to make...well, to preserve, to recover, to restore, to save. By sitting and listening or getting up and doing, maybe, just maybe, we can save someone from the loneliness that is so common in the human condition. Maybe we can save someone from hopelessness. Maybe we can save someone from despair. By saving them in the ways that we as humans can, maybe we open the door to their being saved in the way only God can. Share the love of God with reckless abandon, become all things to all people, so that by all means you might save some. Amen.


iiBell, Rob and Don Colden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Zondervan, 2008, p. 151-2.   

February 5, 2009

wait patiently

This is one of those Sundays where the preacher has the chance to run a theme through all four lessons. I think these Sundays are pretty rare. The theme I'm finding is that patience is required.

God makes promises of restoration (Psalm). God knows your plight; he's been there (Epistle). God performs actions of restoration (Gospel). God asks that we wait patiently for ours (Isaiah).

While it isn't explicit in the Collect for Sunday, I think that perhaps it lies beneath the surface.

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Bondage is not for a moment, but for a lifetime. We have been promised perfect freedom and the abundance that is a wholeness and restoration of relationship. God knows the power of the devil, he knows how tempting it can be to sit in our self-imposed slavery because it just seems easier. But, in time, after (much) patient waiting, God will restore in us abundant life. He can do it because he saved us (sozo - save, heal, restore) 2000 years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of himself.

The challenge for us is to avoid frustration; to avoid writing God off because it didn't happen know - because we fell back into the same old pattern of self-focus. It isn't easy. It doesn't happen overnight. Nonetheless, God promises that those who wait patiently on him will have their strength renewed. TBTG!

February 4, 2009

Cornelius the Centurion

    Today we celebrate the Feast of Cornelius the Centurion, the first Gentile or non-Jew to be converted to Christianity. The story of his and his family's conversion is one of the most important in the history of Christianity, so important that Luke spends two chapters in the book of Acts describing it. It is a story that is so very important to all of us who don't claim a Jewish heritage, and one which inexplicably we don't really hear in the lessons for today.
    Cornelius was a Roman officer, a Centurion, who lived in the Roman capital of Judea, Caesarea. He was what the Jews considered a God-fearing Gentile. That is to say, he was not a Jew by heritage or by circumcision, but he worshiped the One God, YHWH. In New Testament times, an estimated ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers, Gentiles who recognized that the pagan belief in many gods and goddesses, who according to the myths about them were given to adultery, treachery, intrigue, and the like, was not a religion for a thoughtful and moral worshiper, and who had accordingly embraced an ethical monotheism--belief in One God, who had created the world, and who was the upholder of the Moral Law. Although only a few of them took the step of formal conversion to Judaism, undergoing circumcision and accepting the obligations of keeping the food laws and ritual laws of Moses and his rabbinical interpreters, most of them attended synagogue services regularly.
    One day, an Angel of Lord came to Cornelius and told him, "Your prayers and neighborly acts have brought you to God's attention. Here's what you are to do. Send men to Joppa to get Simon, the one everyone calls Peter. He is staying with Simon the Tanner, whose house is down by the sea."
    At once Cornelius sent three men to Joppa. Meanwhile, Peter was having a vision of his own. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: "Go to it, Peter—kill and eat."
    Peter said, "Oh, no, Lord. I've never so much as tasted food that was not kosher."
    The voice came a second time: "If God says it's okay, it's okay."
    This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.
    As Peter, puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant, the men sent by Cornelius showed up at Simon's front door. They called in, asking if there was a Simon, also called Peter, staying there. Peter, lost in thought, didn't hear them, so the Spirit whispered to him, "Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don't ask any questions. I sent them to get you."
    Peter went down and said to the men, "I think I'm the man you're looking for."
    They said, "Captain Cornelius, a God-fearing man well-known for his fair play—ask any Jew in this part of the country—was commanded by a holy angel to get you and bring you to his house so he could hear what you had to say."
    So Peter joined the men and traveled to Cornelius' home. When he got there, Peter addressed them, "You know, I'm sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don't do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked. But now I'd like to know why you sent for me."
    Cornelius told of his vision, Peter told them the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and No sooner were these words out of Peter's mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on "outsider" non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God.
    Then Peter said, "Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They've received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did." Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The whole religious world changed in that moment. Those in the leadership, like Peter and James, and John had now either seen with their own eyes or heard from reliable sources that God's gift of the Spirit was available to everyone. Which brings us the lesson from Acts we heard, as Peter is in Jerusalem, in trouble for rubbing elbows with Gentiles, but God's will that all of his creation be restored would prevail.
    What great news!  2000 years later, we sort of get that God's grace is open to everyone, but imagine being there trying to figure it all out.  What a time of reflection on the part of the apostles.  So today, we thank God for his witness to Cornelius the Centurion and for opening the very gates of heaven to us, God-fearing Gentiles.  Amen.

February 3, 2009


I defy you to find a more schizophrenic half verse of scripture than 1 Cor 9.22b.

"I became all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some."

In late modernity America with its fascination with the (mostly false) liberal/conservative divide I can just imagine hearing this preached one of two ways.

"Liberal" preachers say, "we must be all things to all people; so [insert traditional sin/doctrine here] must be reevaluated..."

"Conservative" preachers say, "we must 'save' everyone..."

Clearly, both are terrible interpretations of what Paul was actually saying to the church in Corinth. Both are reason enough to make it a rule that one should never, ever, preach a sermon based soley on one half of a verse of Paul (I hesitate to make it a more universal rule as the OT has some pretty sweet one-liners).

Rob Bell in his new book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, says that the most powerful sermon that could ever be preached is two words, "me too." While Paul is notoriously wordy, he is essentially saying the same thing, "me too." I have been weak. I have been under the law. I have been made free from the law. I have been in all sorts of situations, and so I can sit with you in yours and say, "me too," while I share with you the hope that is within me. By doing so, maybe, just maybe, I can save you from the loneliness that is so common in the human condition. Maybe I can save you from hopelessness. Maybe I can save you from despair. Maybe I can save you from writing God off in the midst of tough times, in the midst of good times, in the midst of the everyday.

February 2, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany 4B

     Moses, as he laid out the social structure that would one day define life in the Promised Land, made a promise from God, one that many would argue has fallen on deaf ears, "any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in [the name of the Lord] a word that [the Lord has] not commanded the prophet to speak -- that prophet shall die." It seems to me that somewhere along the line Christians, or more properly the institution known as the Church Universal, forgot the vow of God in Deuteronomy 18.20.

    In October of 2007 two guys, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons issued an alarm for Christians in America. In their book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, they published the culmination of all sorts of research with 867 young people ages 16 through 29. What they found, Mahatma Ghandi knew more than 60 years ago when he said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Their research found that 85% of the 440 non-Christian respondents saw Christianity as hypocritical. Even more surprisingly, 47% of those who called themselves active churchgoers agreed that Christians are hypocritical - 47%!i

   Many of you probably have friends and family who have said something similar. “I don't go to Church because they are so hypocritical.” “They talk out of one side of their mouth and then do the exact opposite.” “They talk all about loving God and loving neighbor and then flip me the bird on the highway.” Honestly, for me, there is barely a day that goes by that I don't see something on TV, said by a brother or sister in Christ, that doesn't make me say, “that makes my job of proclaiming the good news that much harder.”

     I know that the people of St. Paul's Foley don't fall into this category of hypocritical and judgmental. I know that I am preaching to the choir, but maybe by looking critically at ourselves we can offer wisdom and hope to those who come through these doors looking for a church where they can feel loved, honored, and respected, even when called to repentance.

    It was a typical Friday evening, and the assembly had gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum. People from all walks of life, in any manner of mood, gathered as a body to worship the Lord who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and promised that one day, they too would be free from the oppression of their Roman occupiers. As was the custom of the time, visiting rabbis were asked to share news from the road and maybe a word of encouragement. Jesus, just such a visiting rabbi, stood up and began to teach. Mark doesn't tell us what he taught on this particular occasion, but we know from just a few verses earlier that Jesus was going all over Galilee, preaching “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” But it wasn't what he said that made the people sit up and take notice, it was how he said it, “as one with authority.”ii This word, authority, exousia, is an important word for Mark. It is closely related to the verb, exesti, which means “to make free” or “to give permission.” Jesus, then, teaches as one who has been given permission to teach free from the bonds of knowledge and tradition. Jesus comes with an independent authority that comes not from the school he went to, but from the God who made all things.iii

    This most certainly is not what the people expected as they put on their Friday best to head to the Synagogue. They, like many of us, were expecting the usual; some prayers, some songs, a boring sermon, and a blessing. What they got instead was a teaching that stretched them far beyond what the Scribes could require. They got a call from God himself to enter his kingdom; right then, right there. Still somewhat amazed at what they had just heard, the people watched Jesus return to his seat and prepared to immediately forget everything he had said, when there came another voice, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Now things were getting strange. Who shouts out in Synagogue? Didn't he know that this was a place of reverence and duty? And what does he mean “the Holy one of God”?

    Calmly, Jesus rebukes the man, “Be quiet,” he says, speaking for all of the crowd, but then he adds another sentence, again saying something that no one expected, “Come out of him!” “And no sooner were those words out of Jesus' mouth when the man began to convulse. He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking out one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the poor man was better. The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him. With the exception maybe of Jesus, however, he was the only one who was calm. Everyone else was in the process of scraping their jaws off the floor. These things don't happen in Capernaum, and they most certainly don't happen in the Synagogue. But today was a different sort of day. This sabbath was a different sabbath because God incarnate was in town; the one who had the authority of heaven had come to show people a new way, a better way.”iv

    Jesus wasn't a magician, like so many others at the time, casting out demons for money. He had authority. Jesus wasn't a Scribe, like so many others at the time, preaching to a system that kept them in power. He had authority. Four chapters later Mark will tell us another story, using many of the same words, authority, rebuke, be silent as Jesus calms a storm on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, God incarnate, has power, has authority, over the religious world (the Torah), the natural world (the winds and the sea), and the supernatural world (deamons).v

    This authority, as Eugene Petersen translates it, “is a new teaching that does what it says.” It isn't hypocritical. It doesn't feed the power of idols and other gods. It doesn't presume to speak a word from the Lord that isn't from the Lord. It is teaching that has authority.

    This is, I think, what St. Paul's Foley has to offer; teaching that does what it says. With the confidence of our patron, Saint Paul, we say to the people of Foley, “we are sinners, redeemed by Jesus, who are called to be the incarnate body of Christ.” We readily admit we are broken. We understand that without Jesus none of these good works would be possible. But we thank God for the chance to help him bring his Kingdom to earth on a full-time basis.

    While most of us, myself included, come to church not expecting Jesus to show up and turn everything upside down, the lesson we learn today, is that if we are looking to follow Jesus, if we are seeking to live under his authority, then we should, at all times and at places be ready for the God of all Creation to turn everything right-side-up. As Annie Dillard once wrote, “we don't dress right for church. Instead of coming in our Sunday finery with our hair all done up just so, we ought to show up for church in hard hats. We are encountering the supreme authority, the living God, anything could happen.vi “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” Amen.

iAdelle M. Banks, “Study: Youth see Christians as judgmental, anti-gay” USA Today www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-10-10-christians_young_N.htm?poe=click=refer (accessed 1/29/09)

iicep.calvinseminary.edu/thisweek/index.php (accessed 1/28/09) – Scott Hoezee


ivcep.calvinseminary.edu/thisweek/index.php (accessed 1/28/09) – Scott Hoezee


viNoted in cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisweek/index.php (accessed 1/28/09) – Scott Hoezee

it is great when it happens

I think we all have our "pet verses" from the Bible. We have those verses that, without the bonds of a lectionary, would show up in sermon series after sermon series. One of those passages for me is 1 Cor 9.16-23; especially the final verse - "I became all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings."

I'm excited to have an excuse to exegete (in my own sort of way) this passage. I know it and I love it, but it'll be nice to get to know it better. It won't be easy, most of the online resources I use are gospel-centric, but I'm going to find out more about 1 Cor 6.16-23. Won't you join me?

Readings for Epiphany 5, Year B