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.