October 27, 2010

run without stumbling

The prayer for this week asks God that we might run without stumbling to obtain God's heavenly promises. That is a nice prayer, but stumbling has a lot more to do with me than it does with God.

Here's my theory; as Scripture tells us Jesus "He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them." (2 Cor 5:15 - NLT) So if he died for everyone, and grace comes first, than all have received the grace of God. All we have the option of doing then is to reject the grace (read stumble) and walk away from God's dream for our lives.

Those stumbles are usually related to things like pride, greed, lust, laziness, and plain old misunderstanding, and despite what the book of Job would have us say, God doesn't give us those things, we do them quite well on our own.

So we stumble and we trip and we fall, and God picks us up again and again and again because his grace is an ever-flowing stream. Despite all our trip-ups it is still possible to obtain what God has promised, so long as we always allow him to pick us back up, dust us off, and hand back to us the grace of his love.

October 26, 2010


The picture on the left is of the stained glass window behind the altar in the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary. I should put that in past tense, it was the window. On Friday afternoon the chapel, opened in 1881 was almost completely destroyed by fire. The iconic window that has for 129 year defined the mission of VTS has been returned to the dust from which it was originally made.

The call, however, can never be destroyed. Graduates of VTS have, are, and forever will be sent into the world as missionaries charged with one solitary task, to preach the Gospel.


This morning in my lectionary group, it was pointed out that here in his last stop before Jerusalem, Jesus was still in the habit of going. When he called Zacchaeus out of the tree he didn't say, "come here, let me talk to you." He said, "let's go to your house where we can eat and talk." Jesus didn't expect people to come to him. He didn't build four walls and tell people if they wanted to know more they should stop by on Saturday night around sunset. No, he met people where they were. Sinners even. He met them where they were.

Dr. J. gave the example of a member of his congregation who thought they needed a 55" flat panel display in their worship space. J's thought was, why spend more money to decorate a space you aren't going to invite anyone into. I suggested that the money could be used by said member to buy one beer a week for 200 weeks at the local watering hole where he would no doubt have dozens upon dozen of conversations that could spread the gospel far and wide.

Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel. Zacchaeus, take me to your house. Jesus expected us to be out there. So what are we waiting for?

October 25, 2010


There is some intentional double entendre in my post title today. The tense you all are thinking off; the stress-filled tense, the muscle pain tense - that is alive and well as I begin to think about the passage for Sunday; Zacchaeus (the wee little man).

I'm always tense when a lesson we've all known since nursery school comes up because how do you preach it? It has been done to death. What else can I say?

And then there's that bit that the folks over at WorkingPreacher.org add, that this isn't the story we've all come to know. They're interest is in verb tense. In verse 8 both verbs are present tense. "See, I give half of my income to the poor. If I'm found to defraud anyone I pay them back 4 times over."

If there is no conversion. No miraculous change of heart. No opening of Zacchaues' eyes to the ways of the Kingdom, whey then does Jesus say that "TODAY, salvation has come to this house"? And, for that matter, even if there was a dramatic change of lifestyle, aren't we pretty clear on the fact that changed behavior does not salvation bring? Works are the response to grace, not the catalyst.

So I'm feeling tense about tenses and tense about this well known tale of a wee little man whose heart grew three sizes that day (wait, wrong story). =Are you feeling tense too?

Sermon for Proper 25C

Listen to the audio here.

Isn't it nice when a Gospel lesson is so very easy to hear? Finally, Jesus affirms the right person, the one with whom we most closely associate, and he condemns those other people who think they are so great in the eyes of God. Finally, God is on our side. It feels so nice, doesn't it? Maybe we should give God thanks for this great Gospel story. “Lord God Almighty, we thank you that we are not like other people; those hypocritical Roman Catholics, overly righteous baptists, and pesky Mormon's. We thank you especially that we are not like that ridiculous Pharisee with his long robes, flashy tassels, and huge phylacteries singing his own praises to you, as if you didn't know. We, on the other hand attend church regularly, we listen attentively to the lessons as they are read and the sermon as it is preached, we give a portion, maybe not a full 10%, but a good portion of our income to your Church, and we have learned that we should always we humble, and thank you God that we are so very good at it. Amen.”
Ahh, that feels good. Bask in it for just a moment. God is on our side. Except. Except, well, I can't help but feel like I've fallen into a trap. That thank you sounded a lot like the Pharisee's prayer that I found so icky. This is precisely why I hate the parables so much. As soon as I think I've got them figured out, I'm sitting in the bottom of a hole wondering how I got there. Maybe we need to take another look at this parable, read the map a little better, and find our way around this insidious trap.
Two guys went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. This story takes place at the Temple for a reason. Jewish society was pretty stratified. If the story of the rich man and Lazarus tells us anything, it is that the rich and the powerful lived at arms length from the poor, outcast, unclean, and needy. But there was no place where the lines between those who were “in” and those who were “out” were more visible than at the Temple. The walls, porticoes, entrances, and curtains were meant to show who was allowed where. The holy of holies, where the presence of God resided, was only to be entered into by the High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippur. Outside of the curtain that veiled the holy of holies was the Court of the Priests, a location set apart for the work and sacrifices of the Priests and Levites. Outside of that walled area was the Court of Israel where the men could stand and see the Priests as they offered the sacrifice. Then came the Court of Women where all Israelites would be allowed to enter. In this area there was even an area set aside for Lepers. Outside of that was the Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders would be allowed and where merchants usually set up shop to sell the animals needed to make various atonements. Everybody has a place and everyone knew where they were allowed. You were no where more aware of your place in Jewish society then standing in your permitted location within the Temple Courts.
So the Pharisee took his normal place at the Chair of Moses, the seat of the Teacher, and began his usual prayers. In the same way that many of you enter the Nave on Sunday morning and kneel to say your prayers, the Pharisee stood, looked up to heaven, and quietly prayed to himself a prayer that was as standard in his day as “Now I lay me down to sleep” is to you and me, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” and seeing the Tax Collector off in the distance, he added, “or like that Tax Collector over there. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Truth be told, this prayer is probably more palatable than the typical morning prayer of any Jewish man, “God, I thank you that I was not born a Gentile or a woman.” There is no dishonestly in the prayer of this Pharisee. He is a righteous man, one who strives to live up to the letter of the law. He fasted regularly as a sign of his penitence. He gave generously so that those who were in need in Israel could have food and shelter. He did all the right things. As he came to the Temple he was righteous. As he prayed this prayer, he was righteous. As he went home at the end of the day, he was righteous. And to the hearers of Jesus' parable, the Pharisee has done everything right. He gave thanks for the things he should be thankful for; he is a righteous man and that is worth thanking God for.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, took his usual place “far off.” Tax Collectors were some of the lowest life forms in Israel. They earned the name, publicans, because they were considered totally secular, existing outside the life of the faith entirely. Ethnically Jewish, they shook down their own people for the pagan-worshipping Romans and always managed to take enough to keep their families fashionably clothed and well fed. He stood outside not only the Temple, but publicans were outsiders religiously, politically, and economically. Though a leper could take his rightful place in the Court of Women, the Tax Collector was considered so unclean that he would have to stand outside with the Gentiles. His posture matches that of his stature, he is the lowest of the low. Without even lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his chest repeatedly and says, presumably out loud, maybe even with a shout, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To the hearers of Jesus' parable a Tax Collector has never spoken truer words. If he was anything, he was a sinner. He was a sinner when he arrived at the Temple. He was a sinner as he prayed this prayer. And he'd go home a sinner; a dirty publican (spit) who deserved every bad thing that ever happened to him.
The way this story is supposed to end is the Pharisee goes home righteous and the Tax Collector goes home unrighteous. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a parable if it ended that way; so Jesus once again pulls the rug out from under his audience and says, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no way for me to give this story the shock-value it deserves. There is no way you can hear this the way Jesus' audience would have, but suffice it to say this is probably another one of those “let's throw him off the cliff” moment's in Jesus' ministry. He had a lot of those. Here he tells the crowd that while the Pharisee went home righteous, the Tax Collector went home justified. He was accounted as righteous by God. He was restored to right relationship with God. Basically, Jesus says to the crowd, if it weren't for all the rules, the Tax Collector could have safely walked straight into the holy of holies because God had washed him clean.
Its just not right. Its unfair. How can this hated Tax Collector (spit) go home justified? He hasn't done anything. He didn't offer a sacrifice. He didn't pay his atonement. He just stated the truth, he is nothing but a low down, dirty sinner and that's all he'll ever be. Except, of course, by the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
And that's where this story spins on its ear. That's how the parable trap is avoided. If this were just a story about the need for humility it would be impossible to live up to because humility is impossible to hold on to. As soon as you have it, and realize you have it, its gone. Hey, I'm being so much more humble than that guy. Oh wait, no I'm not. If humility is just another virtue, another law, God is calling us to live up to, it too will lead only to death.
But this is a story about grace. The Tax Collector wasn't being humble, he was being real. He, like you and like me, was nothing more than a sinner in need of God's great mercy. And so, he asked for it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mercy became freely available to everyone. He died for the sins of us all, so that we might no longer live for ourselves; for our own piety and good works, but for him who died for us. He died that we might all have life. He offers the gift of mercy and all we have to do is recognize that we need it.
The Pharisee didn't think he needed any mercy, he was doing just fine on his own. The Tax Collector knew he needed the grace that only God could give and so he received it. He went home justified, redeemed, restored. And he woke up the next day and went back to the despicable work of collecting taxes from his own people and collecting his own salary from their threadbare pockets, and would return to the temple again and again saying “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
This morning we gather in one of God's many Temples. We sing praises, we offer prayers, and we confess our sins. At the table, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made so that his mercy might be freely offered to all. If you know you need God's mercy, take it, for it is given to each who has need. If you don't think you need it, you best take it anyway. There is a lot of grace required in finding the humility necessary to turn your eyes to the floor, beat on your chest, and ask of God only six words, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.

October 21, 2010

make us love what you command

I think I threatened this three years ago, but this would be a great week to preach on the Collect. That line about making us love what God commands is a doozy. A real, are you sure you really want to pray this kind of weekend.

Think about it. If God were to make us love what he commands then your life might look a whole lot different. How many of us are constantly running away from the dream that God has for our lives? Are you actively ignoring a call to seminary? An mission trip? An outreach ministry? A better way to spend you money? A person you are called to love? Church on Sunday morning (or Saturday night)?

I used to think that I didn't want to become "too Christian" for fear that God would send me to Botswana as a missionary. But then some wise people helped me realize that if God wanted me in Botswana he'd make me love it, he'd change my heart, and I'd be there all too gladly.

If we really want to follow God's will in our lives, all we really need to do is find out where he has turned our hearts, to seek out our place of love because, he has already answered the prayer and made us love what he commands.

What is he commanding of you? Where is your heart leading?

I lift my eyes to the hills - Proper 24c Wed Homily

The summer after my first year of seminary, I served my time in CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education or the Church Punishes Everyone is a time for would-be pastors of many denominations to get their feet wet in the world of pastoral care. You can't learn Pastoral Care from a book, you just have to do it, so every summer thousands of untrained “chaplains” are dispatched upon unsuspecting patients in hospitals, trauma centers, hospice programs, and long-term care facilities to “learn” how to be pastoral. I spent my three months at Goodwin House, a tiered care retirement facility in Alexandria, VA. There were 9 of us in my program and each of us was to be assigned a hospice patient at some time during our tenure at Goodwin House. When it became clear that 9 people would not be entering hospice in our 3 months they began to double us up, and I worked with a friend and colleague, Peter with an Alzheimer's patient. She was a sweet woman who was convinced it was 1936 and each time I arrived, she was sure I was calling to pick her up for a date. So we would walk the circular hallway of the Alzheimer's unit, and talk and talk about nothing at all. Eventually she took the inevitable turn and was bed ridden, having not eaten in weeks. Peter and I weren't really sure what to do with her at that point, and since nobody had given us any direction, we prayed what is commonly called “Last rights” with her. Of course she didn't die that day, but how were we supposed to know. Anyway, in the days that followed she received Last Rights like 7 times, but Peter and I noted her most at peace when hearing the words of Psalm 121 - “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?”
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” This is not a rhetorical question that the Psalmist is asking. There is sincerity in these words. Psalm 121 is the second of the fifteen Psalms of Ascents; fifteen songs that were ritually sung on the pilgrimage into Jerusalem; the holy city of God set atop the holy hill. As the singing began, the hill was in view. Sojourners lifted their eyes to see the hill in the midst of a hot and dangerous trek and more than likely honestly asked themselves “from where is my help to come?”
Over the years, of course, it has left the context of the Ascent into Jerusalem and Psalm 121 is now on many a top-5 list of favorites. Its opening line is emblazoned on posters depicting bucolic country churches nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. It is probably second only to the King James Version of Psalm 23 in usage during memorial services. It is the story of a dangerous journey – a story with which we can all relate.
So, then, from where is our help to come? Certainly not from the hills. They just make the journey more difficult. The steeper they go, the harder our walk. The trickier the path, the more likely to encounter robbers hidden in the sweeping turn of a switch-back. Nope, there is no help in the hills. Nor is there help in the people we meet along the way. Sure, it is nice to have companions for the journey. We enjoy one-another's company. We were built to be in relationships. But trusting in people only leads to heartbreak. They can't be there all the time. They can't give fully of themselves in the midst of an arduous journey because they need to keep some energy for themselves. They can help, some, but they can't give all the help we need.
As we lift up our eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The one who made all this was and is and ever will be. The one who created the vast expanse of interstellar space, the galaxies, the suns, and the planets in their courses. The God of all creation is where our help comes from. As we journey along the dangerous path of life, our needs arise in all shapes and sizes, and the Lord God promises to protect us from them all. Not to free us from them all, but to protect us, to stand firm alongside us whether it is in the searing heat of the mid-afternoon sun or the witching hour deep in the middle the night. He neither slumbers nor sleeps; instead he stands guard alongside “from this time forth for ever more.”
In the case of my hospice patient, his protection didn't keep her from a lengthy battle with a debilitating and ugly illness. Instead, it meant that when her hazy eyes looked up, she saw her God with arms wide open, offering her the peace that surpasses understanding. I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, from this time forth, for evermore. Amen.

October 20, 2010

a small point that makes a big difference

At least to me it does.

As I read through commentaries, blogposts, and people's random thoughts, I'm struck by the various ways the Pharisee's posture gets interpreted. The NRSV translates it this way, "The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus..." The NIV says, "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself..." The TNIV changes this, "The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed..." And the CEV, my favorite these days, reads, "The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed," with an interesting note "Some manuscripts have 'stood up and prayed to himself.'"

I am not a Greek scholar, but the way I read pros in Luke 18.11 it seems to me that the Pharisee stood at his usual spot (The Pharisees had a typical spot in the Temple) and prayed to himself.

This may or may not be a big deal to you, but it is to me. It is a huge deal when compared with some who argue that he stood up and "prayed loudly about himself."

If the Pharisee stood up and yelled out, "God, I thank you that I'm not like these other people..." I get mad. It is an affront to my western sensibilities to be so open in one's criticism of those around him. I have a visceral reaction to the Pharisee in this scenario.

If, instead, the Pharisee stood up and prayed to himself, "God, I thank you that I'm not like these other people..." I don't get mad. Sure, my western sensibilities still say it is still a crummy prayer, but he's not flaunting it in the face of those around him. He's having a private conversation between him and God. And, as scholars seem to agree, he's praying a prayer that was as common in his time as "Now I lay me down to sleep..." is to our ears.

So, it is a small point; one that scholars have fun arguing about, but it seems to make a big difference to me in how I am able to hear this story.

October 19, 2010

shock value

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a tough one to preach. Not because its meaning isn't obvious, but because it is. It has lost its shock value since Jesus first told it.

We hear Jesus say the tax collector went home justified and we think, "yeah, that sounds right."

Jesus' audience heard it and thought, "yeah, we should throw him over a cliff."

The Pharisee prayed a genuine prayer. He was very thankful that he had achieved such a high level of spiritual and moral maturity. He was honestly glad he wasn't like those other people. He didn't do anything out of the ordinary.

The Tax Collector had better call himself a sinner. He was in bed with the Romans, stealing from his own people. He was swine. He prayed what he should have prayed and still should have gone home a filthy publican.

And Jesus turns the story on its head.

So, my dear reader(s) how do we do this story justice? How do we reinstate its shock value? Do we dare do it? Or should we just stand up and say, "thank God we aren't like that pharisee?"

Sermon for Proper 24C

The audio for this sermon is available here.

Jacob was on the run, and with good reason. Even from the very moment of his birth, Jacob had lived up to the meaning of his name as a leg-grabbing trickster born grasping at the heel of his twin-brother, Esau. Genesis 32 begins with Jacob receiving the news that Esau is coming to meet him. This news strikes panic in the soul of Jacob, and rightfully so, Jacob and Esau had been fighting since the womb. Jacob had swindled Esau out of his birth-right as the firstborn and stole the familial blessing meant for Esau from his blind and dying father. The last time they saw each other, Esau promised to kill Jacob. So, Jacob panics. He assumes that Esau is coming to kill him and steal his rather significant wealth. So Jacob splits his camp into two parts and sends a gift of two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys to his brother. His final task of the day is to get his wives, his maidservants, his children and all of his possessions to safety; so he fords the Jabbok until he alone is left. You can imagine how tired Jacob must be; physically, emotionally, spiritually; he has endured quite a lot. Just as he begins to rest for the night, a man comes and wrestles with him. Is it Esau? Is it his father, Isaac, back from the dead? Is it his father-in-law, Laban, who he had also duped over the years? The wrestling goes on hour after hour. When it is obvious to the stranger that he is not going to prevail again Jacob he strikes Jacob's hip, dislocating it, but Jacob continues to fight. As the sun begins to rise, the stranger pleads with Jacob, “let me go, for the day is breaking” less for his own sake, but more for Jacob's. If Jacob saw the face of God, he would surely perish. But Jacob, still looking to get ahead in life, holds on for one more blessing. What a night, and he still has to face his brother Esau. But with a new day coming a new identity and now Jacob, the trickster, is Israel, the one who struggled with God, and though limping, he carries with him the blessing of YHWH himself.
I think most of us can relate to Jacob's situation. Sometimes, life feels like an all night wrestling match. You are already exhausted, weak from the trials and tribulations already endured, and just when it looks like you might have a chance to rest, something else comes knocking. Maybe life has felt this way for you recently. It certainly hasn't been a bowl of cherries in my three-and-a-half-years in Foley. Between Keith and I, we've performed 39 funerals in this parish since June 2007. As a nation, we have endured stock market volatility, a double-dip recession, and increasing political polarization. We've watched as our friends have struggled to find jobs. We've seen our neighbors' homes foreclosed on in record numbers. And, just when it felt like things might be getting better, just as the weather turned beautiful in April, we were struck in the hip socket and asked to endure an historically ridiculous oil spill that closed our regions' main revenue source for more than 50 days as oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for almost 100. It has been a long, long night, and at times it has felt like the sun was never going to rise, but the story of God's interaction with human history tells us again and again that God's plan is perfect, his will is peace, and his blessing is available. And honestly, at this point we might as well hold on and demand a blessing.
Maybe Jacob's story is too far-fetched for you. Think then of the problems faced by Luke's Church. As a whole the people were reaching the end of their ropes. Almost two generations had passed since Jesus had walked the earth. His return, once thought to be imminent, now seemed like something that wouldn't happen in a hundred lifetimes. Following the Great Fire in Rome in the year 64, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the great catastrophe and years of persecution followed. All around the Roman Empire, Christians were being brought up on false charges, tortured, and killed. Followers of Jesus were growing weary of the constant assault, the hiding, and the fear. And so, as Luke brings the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to its end, he reminds his readers (and I have to think he is reminding himself as well) of the need to pray always and not lose heart. “Hang on, my brothers and sisters,” Luke essentially says, “because at this point we might as well demand a blessing.”
So Luke conveys a parable that Jesus told. There once was a judge, an unjust judge, one who cared little about God and even less about his fellow human beings. A widow had a dispute with her neighbor and she kept coming to him and asking, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” It was the law that a judge should give precedent to orphans first and widows second, but we can assume that his courtroom was not so filled with orphans demanding justice that he didn't have time to hear the case of this poor widow. Instead, we assume that Jesus' introduction is apt, this guy didn't care about God or people or anything else for that matter. For a while the judge refused to listen to the widow's pleas. Until, of course, she got obnoxious and hit him were it counts; his reputation. She showed up in court everyday, crying out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She met him outside his home as he grabbed the morning paper, crying out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She bought her bread each morning from the same bakery at the same time he was grabbing a cup of coffee and a scone, and cried out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She was always on the treadmill right next to him at the gym yelling louder than his ipod could go, “give me justice! Give me justice.” She was everywhere. She was a pest. The judge began to think to himself, “I have no fear of God and I care not one iota about my fellow human beings, but she is wearing me out, her constant barrage of complaining is giving me a black eye, I'm being publicly humiliated, I might as well give her what she wants.” The widow wrestled and wrestled and wrestled until, finally the sun began to rise and God gave her a blessing.
She had faith that justice would prevail in spite of ridiculous odds to the contrary. And so Jesus ends the story by asking a not so obvious question, “when the son of man returns will he find faith on the earth?” Will he find people crying out for justice in the face of insurmountable odds? Will he find men and women who have hung on for dear life in the hope that the sun will once again rise, that blessings will come in the morning? Will he find faith?
Faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Will he find it? Jacob had faith. He held on for the blessing that he hoped for. The widow had faith. She persisted for justice, convinced that it would eventually be granted. What about us? In our time of trial do we hold out hope? Do we trust in God? Or do we turn to our own devices and walk away from the one who promises restoration and redemption for all his people? Are we ready, willing, and able to wrestle through the darkest night for the blessing that comes in the morning? Perhaps we could learn a thing or two about faith from the story that has held the headlines for the past two months.
It is rare for good news to make the news these days, so it was amazing to see CNN step away from its cable news counterparts and do the right thing. While MSNBC and Fox News continued to try to out yell each other while spouting nonsense about the painfully divisive upcoming mid-term elections, CNN took 24 hours to tell the great story of rescue for 33 miners trapped two-thousand feet below the surface of the earth for sixty-nine days. It was beautiful. 33 men literally coming from darkness to light. One of the men, Mario Sepulveda, in an interview just hours after his rescue told reporters, “I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won.” He said he grabbed God by the hand and never doubted that they would be rescued. Bolstered by the prayers of the world, and grounded by the daily prayers organized by their foreman, those 33 men survived 69 nights worth of wrestling and the very worst the devil had to throw at them based on their faith in God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
There are times when life will feel really dark. Times when it feels like you can't take another body blow. Times when it feels like God is a million miles away. In the midst of those darkest hours, remember, my brothers and sisters, that wrestling with God is an act of faith; one that says, “I know a blessing is coming, and I'm not letting go until I get it.” So hold on to the faith, for the darkness will end, the shadow will pass by, and God's gifts of grace, peace, and love will come soon enough. Amen.

October 18, 2010

What do you tell God?

We are still on prayer this week with Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It has me wondering, what it is that you tell God? I mean, everything you say to God is something he already knows.

Or is it?

I have to wonder if God hears the word coming from the lips of the Pharisee and thinks, "Well isn't that interesting? I didn't know you were so good." I think a good rule of thumb is: If your prayer will surprise God, then you should probably skip it.

On the other hand, the Tax Collector says what everyone, including God, already knows, "I need mercy, I am a sinner." It is the great universal prayer. The prayer every person who has ever lived can pray. In the East, it is the beginning of prayer without ceasing. The Jesus Prayer, as it has come to be known, is so simple and yet, quite possibly, the only prayer you'll ever need to say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Get that right and the rest will take care of itself.

October 14, 2010

strength to persevere

Can you imagine what that night must have been like for Jacob? He had traveled all day and then trip by trip orchestrated his entire family and all their possessions' trek across the Jabbok. As night fell, he must have been exhausted, ready to get his butt to the other side and rest for a little while. Instead, however, a man appears. A man who will wrestle with him all night long. A man who push Jacob to his limit: physically, emotionally, spiritually. A man who will change his life forever.

It is usually in those moments when I am spent, exhausted to the core, that God shows up on my door ready to wrestle. He comes in many forms: a phone call, a fussy baby, one of those "state of our family" discussions that husbands and wives have, and sometimes it is just in the form of a racing mind. Sometimes, it isn't God at all who I am wrestling. Sometimes it is myself. Sometimes it is the devil. But sometimes it is God.

And those times when it is God, I can tell the difference because, like Jacob, I have the strength to persevere. God doesn't wrestle with us to beat us down, he wrestles with us to show us our strength, our ability to handle difficult situations, that in as much as we are wrestling with God, so too is he holding us up.

I lift my eyes to the hills. From where is my help to come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, even when the LORD and I are wrestling to the wee-hours of the morning.

October 12, 2010

proclaim the message

It could be argued that the letters to Timothy aren't worth the average layperson's time. I get that. They were written by an imprisoned Paul, leader, evangelist, apostle, to Timothy, a young, up-and-coming leader in the early Church. And so, many will say, "I'm not a leader, so these letters don't apply to my life."

That is bologna (a theme this week, it seems)! While it is true that many of us are called to be the gears that make the Church work (or even the grease that keeps it running smoothly) each of us has a role to play. Each of us has gifts for ministry that fill the gaps left by the rest of the membership. Where would the average parish be without a person who makes that dessert, a person who buys the napkins, a person who underwrites the cost of routine maintenance by doing it themselves, a person who organizes fund drives, food drives, parish outings, celebrations, etc.

They would be boring places with broken toilets and bad food.

No matter the activity that one performs in the life of the Church, each task is done (hopefully) with the same goal in mind; the goal that Paul solemnly urges Timothy to seek, "proclaim the message." All the events, all the food, all the background stuff, all the eating; it is all headed toward the only goal that matters at all - proclaiming the good news of God in Christ.

If we aren't doing that, well then what makes us different then the UDC, Lions Club, or anything else?

Today, I'm pondering the call to proclaim the message.

October 11, 2010

time to make your Xmas list

It is mid-october and there are only 74 shopping days left until Christmas! It is time, if it isn't too late, to get your Christmas list together. Our local Rite-Aid has been selling Christmas tins of popcorn for weeks already! What are you waiting for!

The Sundays that the lectionary leans us to talking about prayer are always difficult. We have to juggle the many different understandings of prayer that exist in the congregation. There are some who see it as telling God your wish list: bless Tommy (with roller skate), heal Jenny (by giving her a doll), give me the winning lottery numbers, in Jesus' name, Amen.

There are others who say that prayer does nothing; you know "God's gonna do what God's gonna do." With all due respect to those of that ilk, that's balogna. I've seen prayer work too many times to believe this particular school of thought.

Oh, and there's the story of the persistent widow in which Jesus promises that God will not delay in helping us, that he will quickly grant justice to those who cry out to him. No winning lottery tickets, no roller skates, dolls, or toys of any sorts; just the Kingdom, help, and justice. So, what am I praying for? This week, I'm praying for the same thing i always pray for - a sermon. Amen.

October 5, 2010


I'm beginning to think that Luke suffered from Macular Degeneration or some other disease that slowly took away his ability to see. I have no historical evidence to support this except for the importance of seeing in his gospel.

Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, "do you see this woman."
The priest and the levite see the man laying broken and battered in the ditch.
The rich man saw Lazarus.
Simeon saw the salvation promised by God.
Jesus saw the Widow at Nain.

The list goes on and on. In Luke's telling of the healing of the 10 lepers, twice people "see." Jesus saw the lepers standing off at a distance and offered them restoration and healing. And then, one of the lepers saw that he was healed and returned to Jesus to praise God for the miracle.

In both cases (and seemingly every other instance of seeing in Luke) seeing provokes action. Jesus saw and healed. The leper saw and praised.

How much do I not see? How much information hits my cornea and passes by unnoticed? And how much do I work hard not to see? Really see, that is. See so that I am moved to action.

If I see a ball coming at my head, I duck. If I see a man panhandling on the corner, I look the other way. What do I see?

October 4, 2010

a spirit of thanksgiving

I am not particularly good at being thankful. I'm not sure why this is the case, must be a character flaw or something. But I'm usually looking down the road at what is coming next rather than living in the present and being thankful for what I have.

For example, I get paid on the fifteenth and last day of the month via direct deposit. So on the sixteenth and first, once the bank has cleared my stipend, I set out to pay bills. By the evening of the sixteenth and the first of each month I'm usually already pushing my budget for the pay-period and stressed about that extra tank of gas or homeowner's association dues bill or as the case is now, Christmas.

I never take the time to be thankful for the generous pay that I am given so that I can do the great work to which I have been called. Sure, every once in a while I'll realize how blessed we are that SHW has been able to stay at home with FBC these 18 months, but generally speaking I choose future stress over present thanksgiving.

And I'm guessing many of you, dear readers, do too. It is why heart disease is so prevalent in our society. It is why my TV and radio are filled with ads for debt relief, bankruptcy, mortgage help, and pay-day loans. It is an unhealthy and dangerous way to live and it is not what God has in mind for us.

10 lepers are healed but only 1 returns to express his thankfulness to the one who healed him. No wonder the history of God and his people is so filled with God's wrath, a 10% thanksgiving rate is pretty terrible. Jesus commends with his right hand the Samaritan leper while at the same time condemning with his left the nine who went away without a word of thanksgiving on their lips.

I'm going to work harder on the whole thankfulness thing. It is important for my well being, sure, but more importantly, it is the way God created me to be. And for that, I'm thankful.

October 3, 2010

Sermon for Proper 22C - Mustard Seed Faith

Epic fail this week - forgot to hit record on the digital recorder. Here's the text.

Have you ever asked God to increase your faith? Or maybe to give you more patience? Or perhaps you needed the power to forgive. We've all done it. I once heard a friend of mine say, “If it is true that God won't give me more than I can handle, I wish he wouldn't think so highly of me.” We've all reached the point where everything we've got seems like it isn't enough, and yet the seconds keep ticking, the minutes pass by, and life continues to come down the pike. Increase my faith is about all we can manage to say.
Jesus' disciples have reached that point by Luke's 17th chapter. The journey to Jerusalem is nearing its inevitable conclusion, and they are expecting a battle with Rome to begin at any time. They've heard Jesus continuously teach things that made possible disciples turn away. They've noticed the ranks of strong men thinning, while the number of faithful women, former cripples, and once-crazy beggars seems to be increasing exponentially. The march to Jerusalem for war is getting scarier as the expectations for discipleship get more and more difficult.
On three different occasions, Jesus turned away perfectly viable candidates for no good reason at all. There was that ill advised speech about foxes having holes and birds having nests, but the Son of Man having no where to lay his head. One guy wanted to bury his father. Another just wanted to run and say “goodbye” to his family and he got “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” in return. Later on, Jesus told the whole huge crowd that was following him about how costly (like building a huge tower) and how risky (like going to war) being his disciple would be. And then, if that weren't enough, he rounded out the thinning of the herd with that line that the disciples must repeat under their collective breath over and over again, “you can't be my disciple unless you give up everything you have - you can't be my disciple unless you give up everything you have - you can't be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
As if that wasn't enough, recently Jesus has spent most of his time making the Pharisees and Scribes uncomfortable and angry. Now, when it is just him and the twelve, he tells them that sin is impossible to get away from; people will lay before you temptation over and over again. And though life is bad for that person, if they come to you for forgiveness, you have to forgive them. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Seven times. The perfect number seven. So really, Jesus just said forgive your brother or sister every time they screw up and return to you seeking forgiveness.
THAT'S IT! The disciples have had enough. In the words of Popeye, “they've stands all they can stand and they can't stands no more.” And so they plead with Jesus, seemingly in unison, “Increase our faith!” They know that they don't have enough. They can't do this on their own. They can't walk into Jerusalem ready to overthrow the Romans and their co-conspirators the Temple Authorities by themselves. So “give us more” is their cry.
Jesus, knowing full well that the disciples are stressed and worried, does relatively little to sooth their fears. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you,” he replies. And in doing so, Jesus does very little ally the fears and stresses and frustrations that we bring to the table as well. I don't know about you, but that seems to always be the case with me. I cry out, “give me more faith” and there is never a miraculous out-pouring of magical faith pixy dust. Instead, I get something like: “Trust me.” Or, “have no fear.” Or, “it'll be all right.” Which is fine and good, but it isn't at all what I asked for.
The more I think about it, though, the less I want God to increase my faith. Of the one to whom more is given, more is expected. If my faith were the size of a mustard seed, I'd be moving mountains and telling mulberry trees to uproot and plant in the sea. I think I'll pass. Instead, I find myself being thankful for the little faith I do have. And isn't that really what Jesus is saying here, “you've got enough, any more and the world we start to look very very different. Frighteningly so.”
Nobody needs enough faith to move mountains and trees. It would make a great movie though, imagine what would happen if that kind of faith ended up in the wrong hands? But in the real world, more faith is not required because faith isn't magic pixy dust or the strength to persevere or the power to believe in something that is patently false or actually impossible. What Indiana Jones does in stepping out on the invisible bridge is not faith, it is stupidity. Faith is about a relationship.
And as a relationship, faith is based on trust, and as much as we humans like to think trust is something you can have more or less of, when it comes down to it, trust and faith are things that you either have or you don't. Faith isn't believing in Jesus, but rather believing Jesus, trusting Jesus, giving your heart to Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus. There is no more or less, there is only being in or out of relationship.
As grown-ups we have a hard time understanding this because we've learned to see the world in gradations. We have a little money, some money, enough money, lots of money, more money than sense – the ways to break down the area between having and not having are endless, but I think in our growing up, we've lost a little bit of what Jesus is trying to teach us. Remember his whole, “unless you become like a child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” bit?
Cassie and I enjoy ice cream. We've been frequent fliers at at least one decent ice cream shop everywhere we've ever lived. Recently we found the joy that is the Bama Creamery; homemade ice cream, marble slab mix-ins, num yummy! Anyway, we try to make it a once-a-paycheck treat for the whole family to go out for ice cream. I get chocolate with peanut butter cup. Cass get's chocolate with strawberry's and hot fudge. And Eliza gets a cup of vanilla. If you look at our ice cream in the beginning it is clear that Cass and I have a lot of ice cream and Eliza has a little. But in Eliza's eyes, she either has ice cream or she doesn't. She cane either have “more” or it is “all gone.” The in between stuff doesn't matter to her.
It takes child-like eyes to see what Jesus is saying here. You've either got faith or its “all gone.” And if you have faith, if you are in that relationship, then you have enough to do whatever it is you need because nobody needs to tell a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the sea.
If you have that relationship, if you have turned your heart over to Jesus, if you trust in him, then you've got all the faith you'll ever need. There are times, of course, when that is really hard to believe; times when the weight of stress or illness or sadness feels like it has crushed your faith. In those time, then it is important to remember that we don't walk this journey of faith alone.
Let's assume for a minute that none of us has faith the size of one mustard seed. Maybe instead our faith is half a mustard seed. So if two gather together in faith, then you have one mustard seed of faith. One mustard seed could move a mulberry tree. Imagine what four people of faith gathered together could do. Or six. Or ten. Or seventy-five. Or two-hundred. Think of the power that comes in the community of faith. Ten or fifteen people working together for a couple of days raised hundreds of dollars for the Hope for Children Mission in Port Au Prince just this weekend.
Faith is not something that you can cultivate and grow within yourself. You've either got it or you don't. If you've got it, then rest assured you've got enough to carry you through. But faith was not given to live in isolation. Faith is perfected in community; faith is most powerful when living alongside the faith of another.
So this weekend, I'm doing an experiment. I want to see how many mountains, mulberry trees, and various other things the family and friends of St. Paul's Foley can accomplish by the grace of God's gift of faith. Take a mustard seed and hold onto it. Realize just how small it is. Realize how much can be accomplished with just that seed, and then think about how much we can accomplish when we combine our mustard seeds one with another. Try not to lose it for the next twenty minutes. And then, as you come forward to communion, bring your mustard seed up front and place it in with those from five15 (and 7:30) and give thanks to God for the power of faith multiplied and perfected in the communion of the body of Christ. Amen.