March 31, 2010

The First Believer - Wednesday in Holy Week

As we continue our journey with Jesus to the Cross, today, we hear the story of the unnamed woman (at least in Mark's account) who anointed Jesus. We've taken our chronology from Crossin and Borg's "The Last Week" and I've found their reflection on Wednesday in Holy Week to be quite helpful both as I prepare to preach at noon today on John's version of Judas' betrayal and as I ponder this extravagant act by the woman at the home of Simon the Leper.

Borg and Crossin see Mark's Holy Week tale as one of epic failure on the part of the 12, all 12 of them. Judas, of course, will fail the worst, but Peter won't do much better and the other 10, well they aren't exactly standing in Pilate's courtyard yelling, "No! This man is the King of the Jews! Release Jesus of Nazareth."

Contrast this with the woman, the only one it seems who gets it. Jesus has told them three times that he would die and rise again. And she believed him. And so, as Borg and Crossin posit, her conclusion is this, "Since (not it) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you now beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward." (p104)

She is the first believer. Long before the empty tomb (which this year, in Luke's version we receive with disbelief) she believes. She is the first Christian, the model disciple, and we have no name for her (in Mark.)

Today, I wonder where I fall on the discipleship spectrum. Am I like the woman, ready to serve no matter the cost? Or am I like the 12, wanting it to be my way first before I'll sign on?

Lord, make me like this woman that I might serve you at all times and in all places. Amen.

March 30, 2010


"When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

In three days Jesus will be hanging on a cross and ask God to "forgive them for they know not what they do." Even in the midst of torture; beaten, bloody, struggling for breath - Jesus is in the business of forgiveness. He forgives even his enemies so that our Father in heaven might forgive us our sins.

How seldom I really think of forgiveness. I mean, I say "I'm sorry" a lot, but that rarely is my seeking forgiveness. Or when another says, "I'm sorry" to me, I usually blow it off and so, "don't worry about it," or "no problem," or "its cool." But very rarely do I actually seek true forgiveness from another, and even less often do I seek to forgive.

How I hamper my own redemption by my lack of forgiveness. Father, forgive me, for often I know not what I do.

March 29, 2010

Monday in Holy Week

St. Paul's is walking the Way of the Cross this week with an Email arriving early in the morning. Each day there is a lesson from the Gospels and the Collect inviting everyone to a moment of reflection on Jesus' journey to the Cross. The lessons for most of the week are based on Marcus Borg and John Crossin's book "The Last Week."

Today's lesson is Mark 11.12-19, Jesus overturning the temple.

What strikes me this morning is the response of the authorities: They looked for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

On Palm Sunday the whole crowd ostensibly ignored Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, but today they were amazed. What changed? Why were they amazed at his teaching and not royally ticked off at his violent reaction to their long held religious system? This fickle crowd will not be enamored with Jesus for long, and today is the first time we see Jesus' disciples start to move to the background as the whole crowd asserts its mob rule. This is important. This is pivotal. This is Monday.

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year C

Last week, Cassie, Eliza and I had the luxury of spending some time in Kissimmee, FL for Cassie's cousin's wedding. The save the date notice for the March 19th wedding arrived in Cassie's inbox on August 19, 2009 so we had exactly seven months to plan and prepare for the trip to central Florida. Flights were researched. Driving routes were looked over. Hotel reviews were read, but not necessarily paid attention to. Reservations were made. Discounts were secured. And a way to carry all of Eliza's stuff in our CRV was carefully discerned. We headed East at about 1PM on March 14th but the trip started long long before that.
Today we remember Jesus' triumphant entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem. We hear the familiar story of his mounting a donkey and leaving Bethany and Bethpage on a two mile westward journey down the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley and up to the gates of the Great City. Jesus left Bethany on Sunday, but the journey began long long before that.
"Go into the village ahead of you," he told two of his disciples, "and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" We can only guess whose donkey Jesus is telling his disciples to take, but one can't help but wonder if his dear friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have found this never-before-ridden beast for him. There has been some planning, maybe a lot of planning, that has gone into this seemingly spontaneous entrance into Jerusalem. It has been a long road since Jesus "set his face for Jerusalem" in chapter nine. And today, as he begins the final week of his life, Jesus will ride a donkey, a lowly beast of burden not fit for royalty, into one of the Great City's lesser gates.
This donkey is special. This donkey has never been ridden. This donkey has been set aside; never ridden, never worked. It has been set aside for sacred use according to the ritual laws of Numbers and Deuteronomy. This donkey, tied up in the next village up the road isn't there out of coincidence, it is there because Jesus has planned it. Jesus, the king of peace, will ride this donkey set aside for sacred use into the Holy City as the whole multitude of his disciples shout praises to God, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Jesus, the King of Peace is riding as a sacrifice into the Holy City for the Passover.
Today, however, we stop at the gates of the city. Despite the prescription in the Prayer Book to follow the Liturgy of the Palms with the reading of the Passion Gospel, we are not there yet. Holy Week begins today, but the journey toward the cross started long-long before now. It has been planned and worked and reworked in the hope that each of us will have the chance to walk with Jesus in the way of his suffering. Each morning this week you will receive by email a special E-Pistle taking you through the last days of Jesus' life. We will leave this place singing "All glory, laud and honor" and tomorrow find ourselves with an angry Jesus turning the tables in the Temple. As the week goes on, you will have the chance to encounter Jesus and the withered fig tree. On Wednesday, we'll read of Jesus' anointing at Bethany, and at noon I will preach on the betrayal of Judas. For Maundy Thursday we will experience the Lord's Supper and on Friday we will find ourselves swept up in the rapid, sordid, and late night events surrounding Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And then, on Saturday, we will wait.
Today, however, we rejoice. We know what the week will bring, but we join with the disciples in shouting our praises to God for his mighty works because that is where we find ourselves on the journey. We are just outside the Holy City, probably far enough away that the Roman soldiers can't hear us, proclaiming our guy as the Lord, the King of Peace, hopeful for what that means. We hear the angry grumbling of the fearful Pharisees. They should be worried. With a new king in place their ties with Rome will no doubt spell their doom. But that isn't their concern. They are more worried about what will happen right now if the soliders hear the shouts. The foot of Rome will be at the neck all of Isreal. It is Passover. The time to remember the great deliverance of the Hebrews out of Egypt. A time of great nationalistic pride. A time when a crowd can easily get whipped up into riots and attempted coups. "Not now Jesus, don't let your people say this now. Don't cause trouble now."
But we rejoice anyway. If we did't do it, the stones would rise up to fill our silence. We rejoice because we have no other option but to sing praises to God. We sing praises on Palm Sunday knowing what Holy Week will bring. We sing praises everyday, knowing that suffering goes on in the world around us. We sing praises even when we are suffering. Or if the suffering becomes too great and we can't, we trust the stones to open their mouths and fill our silence. Our rejoicing leads us further down the path, through the gates into the valley that is Holy Week and I hope that you will walk it with us in its entirety. Don't leave this place with the high happy feeling of Palm Sunday and return here only for the high happy feeling of Easter. We know the awfulness ahead of us, and we must walk with Jesus the whole way to the Cross and grave. We must walk in the way of his suffering so that we can share in the true joy of his resurrection; life overcoming death.
Holy Week 2010 is a brand new journey for you, but it began long long ago. Walk with Jesus this week, not just in the highs of today and Easter Day, but through the valley of death so that you and the whole world might hail Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen.

March 25, 2010

the same mind

Baldwin County is full of debate these days. Nationally, people are concerned with Health Care Reform. Locally, Tuesday was a special election on a three-year 1% sales tax for education. Some were for both. Some were against both. Some thought one was good and the other bad. Some broke long held party lines to vote for a tax, but government expansion into healthcare is way too much. Baldwin County is full of debate these days, and St. Paul's is no exception.
Our congregation is made up of libertarians, Karl Rove Republicans, centrist republicans, moderates, centrist democrats, Nancy Pelosi Democrats, and those who you can't pin down, and we all live together under the same roof.
Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi and admonished them to "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." This verse often gets read as "agree on everything," but that most certainly is not the case. I mean look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane - he was not in agreement with himself as he struggled between running away from the cup and drinking from it.
Having the same mind as Christ does not mean agreeing with each other on everything. Thinking Christians hold vastly differing opinions on such things as human sexuality, social justice, taxes, and yes, even Scripture.
Having the same mind as Christ means loving each other despite our differences. It means feeling comfortable sharing opinions knowing that another has different ideas. It means respecting one another realizing that thoughtful, prayerful, discipleship went into the forming of one's opinions.
Having the same mind as Christ means living a life of humility.
Baldwin County is full of debate these days. The tendency is to allow debate to flow into vitriol, but those of us who call ourselves disciples live by a different standard; humility.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

March 24, 2010

Homily for Oscar Romero

Today the Church remembers Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated on this day in 1980. He is remembered alongside the many other martyrs of El Salvador who died during the Salvadorian twelve year long Salvadorian Civil War. The politics are complicated as Marxists and Capitalists lined up against one another while liberationists from the Roman Catholic Church rallied against and suffered at the hands of both sides. What matters to us and the reason we remember Archbishop Romero is not his politics but his heart.
For most of his ordained ministry, Romero was considered to be a rather conservative clergyman. But on March 12, 1977 his whole world changed as his close friend Father Rutillio Grande was assassinated for his attempt to create groups for the poor to become self-reliant. "When I looked at Rutillio lying there dead," Romero later said, "I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'"1
From that day on Archbishop Romero began to speak openly against poverty, social injustice, political violence, and torture. His focus, of course, was on the persecution of the Church. On February 2, 1980, Romero spoke at a University in Beligium and denounced what he saw clearly as persecution. "In less than three years [from 1977 to 1980], more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened and slandered. Six of them are martyrs, having been assassinated; various others have been tortured, and others expelled from the country. Religious women have also been the object of persecution. The archdiocesan radio station, Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions have been constantly attacked, menaced, threatened with bombs [, and v]arious parish convents have been sacked."
As power changed hands back and forth, Archbishop Romero did not in dear himself to either side, and on March 24, 1980 as he elevated the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer in a small hospital chapel an assassin with an M-16 assault rifle shot him dead, spilling his blood on the altar. More than two-hundred-fifty-thousand mourners showed up for his funeral mass and army gunmen opened fire from rooftops around the square killing more than 30. Romero was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary of the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador as the gunfire continued.
1980 was only thirty years ago, but for some it is a lifetime. Too long to remember the bloody events in and around Central America. But just this morning, I received an email from the Anglican Communion News Service detailing the attempted assassination of Anglican Bishop of El Salvador, Martin Barahona just last week. It ended with a plea for prayer that "hope of a different El Salvador is not lost and that his event is not a sign of persecution of the church."3
The Second Century Theologian, Tertullian, is credited with coining the phrase, "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church" a phrase that Jesus seems to affirm in our Gospel lesson today. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Obviously most of us will not be called to literally die for our faith as Archbishop Romero and many others have, but each of us has a responsibility to live into our prayer for today and "without fear or favor witness to God's Word who abides, God's Word who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord." We do that by following the example of Romero and the Salvadorian marytrs and giving voice to the voiceless poor, or as the prophet Isiah writes, "Give your food to the hungry and care for the homeless. Then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun."
Even in their darkest hour as gunshot rang out during the funeral of their beloved Archbishop, the Church in El Salvador saw a light shining like the noonday sun. As violence threatens to overtake the Church again, their prayer is for hope; for light in the midst of darkness. May we shine that light by remembering the example of Oscar Romero and by offering help to those in need. Amen.

2- Speech at Lovaine University, Belgium, (Feb. 2, 1980).
3- ACNS4693


My twitter/facebook status yesterday was stolen directly from Nadia Bolz-Weber who found a quote from Martin Luther that says, "God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, God can make something out of us."

So good.

And it lines up really well with the Epistle test for Palm Sunday. Jesus, as our perfect example of Godly living, was able to empty himself fully. He didn't exploit the fact that he was God. As Holy Week will show us he didn't put on a miracle show for Herod and he didn't hop off the cross and save himself, instead, he gave it all up. Any reason he could have given to those who wouldn't believe, he gave up. In five short days he went from "Hosanna" to "Crucify him" and he didn't do anything to stop it.

He didn't do anything because God requires nothing to make something. Had Jesus' pride gotten in the way and he filled himself up with himself, God's plan for salvation would have once again hit a wall, but Jesus showed us how to live as one who is empty, one who trusts fully.

May we empty ourselves. May we pour out our pride. May we become nothing so that God can make something out of us.

March 23, 2010

Lent 4c five15 convo

Click here to find the .pdf version of the Lent 4c five15 conversation slideshow.

a lot

Word association is a strong thing. When you say "DC" I think of traffic. When you say "fishing" I think of a quiet spot on the Magnolia River. When you say "disciple" I think of the number 12.

The twelve disciples: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James II, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas; or some variation there of (Nathaniel, Judas II, etc.) as a group are perhaps as widely known as any character in Scripture. The answer to the question "how many disciples did Jesus have?" is readily available from the mouths of babe and adult alike. But in the lesson for the Liturgy of the Palms this Sunday, Luke adds a curious detail.

"The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully..."

The whole multitude? That sounds like a whole lot more than 12.

OK, so the issue is partly due to terminology. The 12 were really apostles AND disciples. All apostles are disciples but not all disciples are apostles. Anyway, what matters here is that four days before his arrest and five before his crucifixion Jesus entered Jerusalem with enough fanfare to evoke Luke to say, "the whole multitude." His message had really caught on, and while most of the "whole multitude" had probably missed the point, Jesus, for a day at least, was given what he was due as they "praised God joyfully."

Today the list of apostles remains at about 12 (subtract Judas, add Matthias and Paul) but the list of disciples runs in the billions and our task remains the same. We don't lead revolutions. We don't inflict fear. We just praise God joyfully for all the deeds of power that we see.

As we rapidly fly towards Holy Week, join the whole multitude of the disciples (read a whole lot of people) and spend some time today praising God joyfully for all the deeds of power he has done in your life.

March 11, 2010

so well known

There was a man who had two sons.

Now you finish the rest of the story.

You know it, right? Dad, about the whole waiting for you to die thing... yeah, can I just get the money now? Dissolute living. Pigpen. Return. Hug. Fatted Calf. Angry brother.

I realized yesterday how autopilot this story is for me. I was reading some commentaries and they kept using the word "prodigal" in a way that made no sense to me. See I had always assumed prodigal meant "lost" but apparently it does not. As my twelfth grade English teacher would (incorrectly) say, "we all know what happens when you spell assume backwards." (emussa????)

But you see, prodigal does not mean lost. Prodigal means "wastefully or recklessly extravagant." The younger son is obviously wastefully extravagant in his spending, but more so in this story, I think it is the Dad who is prodigal in his giving of love and forgiveness which in turn makes him prodigal in giving up his honor.

Think about it. Son comes up and says, "Dad, you are dead to me. Give me what I'd get if you were really dead." Dad has no earthly reason to give his son the money, but he does. Can you imagine the shame upon his house as he sold cattle and land to pull the cash together? Can you imagine how awful it must have felt to answer the question, "so why are you getting rid of this anyway?" And then, when his lost son returns, the dad scoops up his robes and begins to run toward him. I'm told that running was not something a wealthy land owner did which tells us that a) dad is again being reckless with his love and forgiveness and b) dad is again willing to risk his honor for the son that he loves.

In my sermon last Sunday I said that God loves with reckless abandon, which this week would sound like, God is loves prodigally. He risks his honor over and against other gods in order to love us uniquely and unconditionally. He prodigally gave his son for us that we might be restored to right relationship with him. And he waits, scanning the horizon, ready to pull of his robes to sprint to us every time we repent and return to him.

Our God is prodigal.

March 10, 2010

new creation

It has been so long since the lectionary readings made any sense together that I had almost forgotten to read the Hebrew Bible and Epistle Lessons this week. Thankfully, my rector plans on pairing Joshua and Luke which sparked my pea-brain into action.

What is the "new creation" that Paul is talking about?

The Sermon Brainwave folk want us to remember that this is communal. I am not a new creation, I am part of a new creation.

But that can't work. I can't be part of a new creation and not be one myself. Old wine, new wineskins. We know it does't work. I both can't and won't enter the new creation when I myself am of the old way. I can't because my oldness will destroy the newness, and I won't because the newness will taint my oldness.

It has to be a both/and. In Christ, I am personally a new creation called a disciple who lives within a New Creation called the Kingdom of God.

To use the example of the prodigal son story
1) younger son is made new in the pigsty and enter the new place called home.
2) dad is made new in his embrace with young son and enters the new place called joy.
3) older son is offered newness if he enters the new place called party.

Robert Farrar Capon makes this all make sense with this version of the prodigal son from “The Parables of Grace” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1988, p. 144):
(The father is speaking to the older brother): “The only thing that matters is that, fun or no fun [in the far country], your brother finally died to all that and now he’s alive again—whereas you, unfortunately, were hardly alive even the first time around. Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here and we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You OWN this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rules about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and everyone else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink.”

Become a new creation. Enter the New Creation. Enjoy the party.

March 9, 2010

leaving and returning

A lot of attention gets paid to the Father in the story of the prodigal son especially the fact that he ran out to meet his son "while he was still far off." This is, obviously, an important theological detail, but what I am struck by this morning are the Father's actions around his son's deciding to leave.

"He divided his property between [his two sons]."

That's it. That's all. His son said, "you are dead to me, give me what I'm due." And Dad did it. Dad knew that his son was making the first bad decision of many. Dad knew that without family his boy was nothing. Dad knew a lot, but allowed his son to make the choices he thought he needed to make.

There's a bumper sticker out there that says "If you feel like God's far away, who moved?" It is trite. It is not particularly helpful when someone is in a crisis. It is true, true, true. God allows us to make decisions, even bad decisions. In most cases, he goes beyond what the Father in the parable does and at least makes some of the consequences known, but he won't stop us. We are free to leave.

But we are also free to return at any time. He's waiting, scanning the horizon, hoping that you will return; not so he can say, "I told you so" but so he can wrap you in his arms and say, "I love you. I've missed you. Welcome home."

March 8, 2010

rock bottom

The dubious honor of being the first actual blu-ray disc played in our blu-ray player goes to, of all movies, "The Invention of Lying." I won't go into the theology of it here because I don't care, but I will use it as an example.

Early in the movie, the main character Mark (Ricky Gervais) tells his friend Greg (Louis CK) that they need to leave the bar and go. Greg downs two more shots and shouts, "I'm driving!" As we see the car weaving in and out of traffic, Mark asks, "are you sure you're OK to drive?" Greg responds, "Yeah, I need to hit bottom." Cue the lights and sirens as Mark says, "looks like the bottom is coming soon."

Its a lot funnier in the context of the movie.

Anyway, all that to say that we all have a bottom at some point in our lives. For some, it is in the form of a DUI. For others it isn't quite as drastic or dangerous. For some it is the moment when a lifetime of choosing work over family means your wife isn't there when you arrive home at 11pm for the sixth night in a row. We all have a rock bottom because our sins of choice lead us to that place where the consequences that we had long been warned about, finally come true.

Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 5.3 (poor in spirit) as "You're blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule." Which is essentially what the whole parable of the prodigal son is all about. A series of people finding rock bottom, finding the consequences of their decisions. What we miss out on, and what we are left to determine on our own, is how the second brother will respond. Will he accept the blessing and welcome his brother, or will he continue to dig down beyond the bottom?

We all find ourselves at rock bottom at least once in our lives. Sometimes it is due to a lifetime of drunken debauchery (brother 1), sometimes it is due to our unwillingness to forgive (brother 2), but always it is an opportunity for blessings.

This one, who was dead has come to life. We must rejoice.

March 7, 2010

The Sermon I did Preach

Here's the sermon I wrote on Friday and ended up preaching. A special thank you to those who pray for me every week. It is because of those prayers that God is able to push my nonsense out of the way and speak his Word.

I don't know about you, but I'm really enjoying the Henri Nouwen devotional book this Lent. Some days, Cassie and I read it and all we can say is, “wow.” But last Saturday's reflection left me really thinking. It was entitled, “Our Father Loves All” and the take home line from it is, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” Let me repeat that, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.”
I didn't finish that reflection thinking, “wow.” Instead, I thought, “clearly Henri had lost it by this time. He's a fool. Obviously, God likes some people better than others. Surely God likes me more than, say, Donald Trump or Kim Jong Ill or even Pat Robertson.” They say that it is in our DNA to divide things into groups. Apples v. Oranges. Men v. Women. Good drivers v. bad drivers. Whatever the basis for our groupings, we do it all the time. Rich/Poor, Black/White, Cultured/Ignorant our minds are constantly grouping people. It is a coping technique. A person is a whole lot easier to deal with when they aren't a person at all, but instead a faceless label. Oh, I don't have to deal with him because he's a troublemaker or an ignorant fool or a liberal. And we rationalize this way of living by saying, “we have to do it; its how we are wired.” We get all up in arms when Pat Robertson does it by saying that Haiti's capital city was destroyed by an earthquake because they are vodoo practicing pagans, but it is perfectly OK for me to say he's a babbling buffoon with terrible theology. Well maybe that's no OK.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus seems to be wary of the label and dismiss lifestyle. Having “set his face toward Jerusalem” Jesus and his rag tag group of Galilean pilgrims are on their way to the holy city in time for the Passover Feast. Suddenly, news reaches them that Pilate has mingled the blood of Galilean pilgrims with their sacrifices, which is an amazingly polite way of saying that Pilate had a group of Jews killed in the Temple Court while they were offering their prayers and sacrifices. This is cause for serious anger and righteous indignation. Either that, or this is the time for somebody to stand up and say, “thank God we aren't sinners like them.” Jesus preempts the self-righteous option by saying, “do you think that because they suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” To this terrible story, Jesus adds one of his own. “Do you remember the eighteen who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”
Jesus won't let us dismiss the bad things that happen to other people by labeling them as “sinners who deserve divine punishment” because, quite frankly, we are all sinners who deserve divine punishment. We put other gods (like money and power) ahead of God. We make idols and vote for them by phone or text message (standard messaging rates apply). We use God's name to invoke all sorts of terrible things. We never remember the Sabbath, let alone keep it holy. Our fathers and mothers are rarely honored. Murder, adultery, theft, lying, coveting – the list goes on and on. Every one of us has fallen short of God's dream Every one of us has made a mistake. Every one of us could use more time in silence after, “let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” So when we dismiss “them” as deserving God's divine retribution, we are, in fact, condemning ourselves.
Reenter Henri Nouwen, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” It has been five minutes since the last time I mentioned this line, and it seems even less true now. How can God love everyone uniquely and unconditionally when every one of us deserves God's bitter tears?
Conveniently enough, Jesus wraps up this run-in with bad news by way of a parable about precisely why God's love is universal. A wealthy man owned a lot of land. One day, he came to one of his vineyards, approached a three year-old fig tree and looked for fruit. Finding none, he told the land manager to cut down the tree because all it was doing was wasting soil. “Lord,” said the land manager, “forgive the tree for its fruitlessness. Let me dig around it and tend to it with fertilizer. If it produces fruit next year, that's great. If not, you can cut it down.”
Did you get it? Did you figure out how this story tells us that God's love is universal? No? Well its right there in two simple details. The first detail is in the timing. I'm told that three years would be plenty of time to expect fruit from a fig tree. If three years is a reasonable expectation for fruit production, then that would make a fourth year beyond reasonable expectations. God's grace goes beyond reasonable expectations, so much so that he loves each and every one of us uniquely and unconditionally, even though none of us deserve it. The second detail is in the Greek words of the land manager, “forgive the tree for its fruitlessness.” Aphes, to forgive, the same word Jesus uses when he teaches his disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins.” This takes us back to Jesus' command to “repent.” Ask for and receive forgiveness! Don't pretend like you've been producing fruit all along, admit your failures, your soft spots, your ugliness and then ask for and receive God's forgiveness. God's love is universal because it goes beyond reasonable expectations and it is based in the act of forgiveness.
“God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” It is true, my brothers and sisters. It makes no sense, but this statement by Henri Nouwen is true. God loves with reckless abandon. He aches when he sees events like Pilate's massacre in the Temple, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, the earthquake in Haiti and suicide bombs during Iraqi elections. He doesn't conjure up these events to punish evil doers, he laments that they happen and calls on each of us to repent and return to him. Repentance looks just like it did when Jesus called for it two-thousand years ago. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If you have two coats, give one away. If you have extra food share it. Produce fruit worthy of repentance: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Let the Spirit lead you, let God's grace enfold you, and live a life of forgiveness. It is impossibly simple to do, but thanks be to God, his love that surpasses reasonable expectations. Thanks be to God we have another year in which to grow fruit. Thanks be to God we have the Spirit who fertilizes and nurtures. Thanks be to God for his ongoing forgiveness.
Repent my brothers and sister, not out of fear for God's divine punishment but out of joy for God's unending love. Repent and welcome the Kingdom. Amen.

The Sermon I Didn't Preach

Here's the sermon I wrote earlier this week, but did not preach. It is based on the work of Luise Schottroff and Tom Wright. It is a decent paper (I think), but not a good sermon.

Generally speaking, I think we like Jesus in sound bites. Or to play on my theme from a couple of weeks ago, we like Fortune Cookie Jesus. Short. Sweet. To the Point. Love God, Love your neighbor. Turn the other cheek. Drink your juice. Jesus is a whole lot easier to understand and follow when he is constrained to a text message (160 characters) or Twitter (140). His message is a whole lot easier to share when we can sum it up in a few simple words and plaster them on a bumper sticker or T-shirt. As hard as it might be to believe, we weaken the message of Jesus when we try to universalize his words. When we remove Jesus completely from all of his context, and make him the great Fortune Cookie Writer in the sky, we take away a lot of his power to teach, and removing power from the Son of God is a dangerous thing indeed. Jesus was born in a specific place at a specific time under a specific culture. He was Jewish. He was a Rabbi. And, By the time we reach the thirteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus has already "set his face toward Jerusalem."
He and a rag-tag group of Galilean pilgrims are on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus is sure of where he is headed and I'm pretty sure he knows what is going to happen when he gets there. Word comes to the group that Pilate has mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifice. This is a very polite way of saying that Pilate had killed people just like them inside the temple courts while they were dutifully offering their sacrifices and prayers. Even if this story didn't exist, we don't need the Bible to know that Pilate was a royal jerk. During his ten-year reign as Governor of Judea, Pilate routinely and intentionally picked fights with his subjects in Judea. He poked at their religious heritage by sending his army into the holy city of Jerusalem carrying banners boldly displaying Rome's pagan symbols. He udner-cut their laws by planning an elaborate aqueduct system for the city and then ordering that Temple funds be used to pay for it. When the Jews tried to rebel against the injustice of it all, Pilate sent his troops in to brutally end the rumblings as a reminder of who really was in charge.
To the story of Pilate's brutal attack in the Temple Court, Jesus adds his own; remembering when the tower fell at Siloam and killed 18 people. In the light of both tragedies, Jesus asks the same question, "where these people worse sinners than anyone else?" Answering his own question, Jesus says, "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." These people didn't die because of their sinfulness. They died because of the guilt of everyone. Jesus isn't saying that God doesn't punish people, he is reminding the people that death is the result of sin. He hearkens back to the Torah and reminds the people that they are just as susceptible to death not because of their individual guilt, but because of the guilt of all people. The only avenue for salvation is repentance.
Two-thousand years later, bad things are still happening to good people. Bad things happen to normal people. Bad things happen to bad people. Death is still a possibility not because of my sin, or your sin, but
because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. When we hear the story of Pilate's blood guilt and the tower of Siloam we can't help but think of events like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Temple stampedes in India, and suicide bombers in Iraq and think, "were these people worse sinners than anyone else?" Pat Robertson and people of his ilk think so, but Jesus is clear. "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
"Just as they did." It is an interesting choice of wording on Jesus' part. Is he telling his followers that they'd die in the Temple courts? Will a tower fall on them? "Just as they did" is not an idle phrase in first century Israel. This is a stark reminder to the people that war with Rome was a real possibility. Even here, as Jesus speaks forty years before war would break out, the fear is real. If you continue to forget God. If you continue to rattle your sabers and flex your muscles. If you continue to live outside of Torah the land will do what it has done for generations, it'll spit you out. This isn't a generalized fortune cookie Jesus saying. This isn't a life-after death, long-way-off spiritualized story. This is real, honest, truth he's speaking. If you keep acting this way, war is gonna come, and you will not like how it ends. Jesus calls on the people to read the signs of the time. He wants them to understand that like in the times of Ezekiel and Isaiah, the life of the whole people is in danger and the only way to fix it is to repent, to return to Torah and live by God's commandments.
It took me all week to wrap my mind around this. The call to repentance isn't a call to live under the thumb of Rome, but instead a call to live under the freedom of God. God's history of using foreign armies to meet out his justice is well documented. Jesus' call makes no sense to us today, but it is the only hope for the people of Israel, "Live according to Torah, and Rome will have no power over you. Share your bread, heal the sick, be transformed from threatened victims into active disciples."
Jesus goes on to tell the people a story of a landowner who for three years has come to his vineyard hoping to pick figs from a certain tree. After what should be a reasonable amount of time, the landowner wishes to cut down the fruitless tree because it is just wasting space, but his hired manager has another idea. "Sir, leave it alone. Give it another year. Let me dig around it and fertilize it." That verb, aphes, that gets translated "leave it alone" has more of a "forgive it" sense in the Greek. It is the same word Jesus uses in the Lord's Prayer when he asks God to "forgive our sins." "Forgive the tree for its fruitlessness, Master. Give it another chance."
Here is the hope in this story. Here is where the particulars of Roman/Jewish politics get laid aside and the universal truth comes out. During this season of Lent, as we set aside time to honestly and intentionally do the work of repentance, it makes sense that we again ask for forgiveness. We are sorry that we as individuals haven't produced much fruit. We are sorry that we as the people of St. Paul's haven't produced much fruit. We are sorry that we as the body of Christ have't produced much fruit. Give us another season. Give us some fertilizer and help us to grow. Give us another Lent to work in the garden of our hearts. Give us another Easter to rejoice in the ridiculousness of your grace. Give us another chance to produce fruit, and forgive us of our past unfruitfulness.
Maybe that is the sound bite that Jesus gives us here. The words between the lines, a sound bite that never gets spoken, "There is still time - right now - for you to repent together and do everything God has commanded you to do. So repent, or you will all perish just as they did."
And for us, repentance looks just like it did when Jesus called for it two-thousand years ago. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If you have two coats, give one away. If you have extra food share it. Produce fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Let the Spirit lead you, let God's grace enfold you, and live a life of forgiveness. It is impossibly simple to do, but thanks be to God we have another season to grow and the Spirit who fertilizes and nurtures. Repent my brothers and sister, repent and welcome the Kingdom. Amen.

March 4, 2010

Homily for John and Charles Wesley

Today the Church gives thanks for the lives and ministries of John and Charles Wesley. Born in Epworth, England, the fifteenth and eighteenth children, respectively, of The Reverend Samuel and Mrs. Susanna Wesley, John was ordained in 1728 and Charles 1735. They came into their own in a period of time known as The Great Awakening and are now known as the founders of the Methodist Church, even if they both went to their graves affirming Methodism as a part of the Anglican Church. John, Charles, and a fiery preacher named George Whitefield came to Georgia to share the Good News and because of their burning zeal they made a lot of enemies and won a lot of souls.
The Wesleys took on strict "methods" of practicing their faith based on the rubrics and the model of daily prayer set out in the Prayer Book. In the years that followed both found themselves having strong conversion experiences. John wrote of his conversion on May 24, 1738, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Central to their Methods was the weekly reception of Holy Communion, and it is not doubted that the Holy Spirit was all over those two Wesley boys.
To John was given the gifts of administration and preaching. His model of ministry is still used by Methodism to this day as are his sermons which are still read by preachers as they prepare homilies. To Charles, God gave an amazing gift of music, specifically in the writing of hymns. Charles wrote more than six thousand hymns, twenty-four of which are in our 1982 Hymnal, including such favorites as; "Christ whose glory fills the skies", "Come thou long expected Jesus", "Hark! the herald angels sing", and "Jesus Christ is risen today."
The Wesleys were specially gifted by God. They took seriously the call of Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God, but they were no more special than any of us who sit here this noon. Just as they were gifted in preaching and composition, so are we gifted in our baptisms for the up building of God's Holy Church. You may not know it, but we have each been given gifts and are called to be a light to the nations so that God's salvation might reach the ends of the earth. It comes, like in the case of the Wesleys, when we allow God's Spirit to work within us. When we become certain that Jesus saved even me. With that trust and that salvation, we are freed to do the Good Work that God has set aside for each of us; service to the Church, the knitting of shawls, prayers for the sick and alone, the building of homes for those in substandard housing, breaking the cycle of poverty by giving children the opportunity to enjoy the fullness of their education, and on and on. You might not be out there preaching on the street corners and slaying people in the Spirit, but each of you is, in your own unique way, enabled to do the work of ministry and move forward God's great plan for his Creation.
Today we are reminded of what God can do in us when we allow him the space to work. If you find yourself cooled to God's Spirit, allow him to warm you up because God is ready to do great things through you. Let him in. Do his work. As Charles wrote, "Visit, [God] this soul of mine! Pierce the gloom of sin and grief! Fill me, radiancy divine; scatter all my unbelief; more and more thyself display, shining to the perfect day." May the Spirit of God fill you with all joy in believing. Amen.

what does repentance look like?

Jesus and I have a similar problem. We both assume our congregation knows a lot. I've been asked, in the past, to be a little more specific when it comes to the practical application of my preaching, and I would respectfully have to ask the same of Jesus.

Jesus, what does repentance look like?

I what it means: a total rearranging of life. But how on earth do I do that? How do I, to use Paul's term, renew my mind when its first order operation is sarcasm? How do I live into the kingdom when the world I live in is run by the consumerist machine? How do I produce fruit when it seems clear to me that a try doesn't think about producing fruit, it just happens based on the right conditions? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the right conditions?

What does repentance look like?

This is the key, I think, to unlocking the gospel text for Sunday, and Jesus leaves it unsaid. Sure, we've got context clues and other teachings and all that jazz, but honestly, I'd really like a 12 step road map toward repentance. Anybody out there have one i could borrow?

March 3, 2010

the problem with universals

As much as we hate to admit it, Jesus lived in a particular place during a particular time under a particular culture. We hate it, and by we I mean Christians in general and preachers specifically, because we want Jesus to speak in universals.

Love your neighbor.

Turn the other cheek.

Drink your juice.

We want what Jesus says to be easily applicable to our lives of particularity. Sometimes, however, that really screws up what Jesus was talking about. In Luke 13, Jesus has already "set his face toward Jerusalem." He already knows where he's headed, and I'm guessing is pretty sure what'll happen when he gets there. The band of Gentile Pilgrims on the road with him are not an army and they won't be called on to fight, but dang if they don't want to.

As we read Luke 13.1-9 we forget that Israel is occupied by a brutal Roman regime. We forget that Pilate had for years been setting up ways for Gentiles and Jerusalemites to look like they were rebellion groups that needed to be quelled. We forget that the destruction of the Temple is only a few decades away. "Unless you repent, you will die in the same way." This might be a universal spiritual truth, but Tom Wright thinks that Jesus is being very particular here. If you run into Jerusalem looking like a pissed off group of rebels, you will be treated that way and stories of your blood being mingled with your sacrifices will be spread throughout Palestine. We presume that the tower of Siloam fell because of an engineering disaster, but if you take up your sword, the walls of Jerusalem will fall upon you because of the strength of Caesar's army.

For Tom Wright, the repentance Jesus is talking about is one of humility. Give to Caesar what is his, live within the rule of law, and produce fruit like a fig tree planted in the midst of a vineyard. We want Jesus to speak in universals, but the only way to get there is to understand the particulars of his time. Today, I'm thankful to Tom Wright for some insight into that world.

March 2, 2010

us v. them

Last week in Sunday School our topic was Luke's version of "love your enemies." This topic is again on my mind this week as I ponder the tough lesson from Luke 13. Our Parish is reading Henri Nouwen"s From Fear to Love as a Lenten devotional book and Saturday's post was entitled, "Our Father Loves All."

This line seems to sum it up, "God doesn't need to divide the world into those for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally."

I've heard it said that it is human nature to divide things into groups: apples and oranges, men and women, friends and frenemies, whatever. We justify our label and dismiss lifestyle by saying "we have to do it." But Henri Nouwen seems to argue, and I think Jesus in Luke 13.1-9 agrees that we are all in the same boat. We are all struggling to figure out life; some of us get it a little faster than others, but none of us is perfect. When we start to label people as "sinners" or "enemies" or "not producing fruit" we divide the world into "us v. them" and we are always the good guys.

Jesus says, "nope, y'all are all the bad guys, but God is waiting patiently, tending to you, confident that one day, you'll pull it together and produce fruit." The rain falls on the evil as well as the good. We all have the chance to grow. We all have a chance at redemption. There is no us v. them.

March 1, 2010

Pick your Poison

All right preachers. You ready for a fun set of lessons? You ready to play that Sesame Street favorite, "One of these things is not like the other." Lent 3c in the RCL is for you.
  • Moses and the Burning Bush
  • Paul's admonition to not be like 20,000 who died because of their sexual immorality
  • Jesus' explaining those whose blood was mingled with sacrifice and the death of 18 when the Tower of Siloam fell.
Pick your poison.

In my tradition, I'll be the one reading the Gospel lesson, and it seems to me that people assume that I'll flow from reading the lesson to preaching on it. So I've got to honestly deal with Pilate's blood lust, natural/engineering disasters, and the landowner wanting to cut down trees.

Keith just left my office having challenged me to really dwell on the Parable of the Fig Tree and how it gets read allegorically. Who is the landowner and who is the gardener. This isn't our usual parable in which God is always the landowner. God, or at least the God I've come to know over the years, can't be angry and capricious and ready to cut down at a moment's notice those who "waste the soil." God is more like the gardener, the one who waits patiently, tending and pruning, until the shrub he has planted blooms with a beauty unmatched by anything.

In light of Haiti and Chile and snowpocalypse 1 and 2 and the young deckhand from Orange Beach whose untimely death left his wife and 3 kids virtually helpless and stories that I've yet to hear and will never hear, in light of all of that, the Church has to deal with the ugliness of the gospel lesson today and stand firm in the truth that God did not punish the people of Haiti for a vodoo pact 400 years ago, he did not punish the people of Chile for whatever it is Pat Robertson will say they did, he did not punish DC for their leftist agenda, or that young deckhand for whatever mistakes he might have made, God was holding out hope for everyone who died in each of those cases to turn the corner and produce good fruit. Some of them did. Some died before they could. Some never knew that they were made to produce fruit. Whatever the case, God didn't punish them, events happened and they died, and God goes on pruning and fertilizing and hoping against hope that each of us will turn around and produce good fruit.