March 31, 2011

Lenten Meditation

I was invited as a guest speaker at Foley UMC's Community Lenten Lunch program this week.  Below you will find my reflection on Lent through the beauty of our Ash Wednesday Collect.

Would you pray with me please.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is with this prayer that Anglicans around the world have been invited into a Holy Lent since Thomas Cranmer's first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. In my opinion, it is an absolute miracle that this prayer has survived and is still in use in 2011. To have such a prayer offered these days is most certainly bad PR for God. It uses that awful “S” word, sin. It dares to look down upon humanity as wretched. It seeks out God's forgiveness. These are not the things of highly enlightened, 21st century, American Christians. Our prayers sound more like, “God, I'm gonna go ahead and do this, so you should probably bless it now. Amen.” Common sense says Lent and all the icky language that goes along with it is bad for the Church.
But for some reason, this season, Lent, continues to intrigue us. Conventional wisdom says Lent is dark and sad and ugly and should at all costs be avoided in the name of seeker sensitivity. And yet. And yet, every morning I read the blog of a guy named Jay Wilson, part-time monk. Jay is keeping the traditional fast of the Paulaner Monks by consuming only water and liquid bread, a specially designed dobble-bock beer for the entire season of Lent. He is not your traditional lenten-fast-type. Jay is a beer lover and a historian. He has dabbled in the Christian life, but as far as I can tell, never been one to jump into life in Christ head first. He is walking his lenten journey, very intentionally, with the help of a Presbyterian Minister who is helping him see where God is in the midst of the whole thing: from dehydration and high potassium levels to media inquiries to his work and life with a wife and a couple of kids. Jay's sometimes irreverent insights into finding God in the midst of the absurdities of everyday life are delightful.
Then there is the story of Nate McKay. Nate grew up in a Christian home, but in the back of a bus at the age of 19 he first confessed his disbelief in God. No longer could he handle the tension of what his faith community taught and what the world around him looked like. And so, in 2008 he began his journey as an atheist. This year, however, Nate has taken on Christianity for Lent. He's praying again, reading scripture again, and is finding that somewhere between the Christianity of his childhood and the atheism of his early adulthood there is something beautiful and amazing happening.
Clearly there is something to this Lent thing, some reason that brew-heads and atheists of Christian upbringing are drawn to it. Something that has kept the Church calling her people to keep a holy lent for centuries. I think it is in part summed up in the way Cranmer's great invitation into this season effects our psychology. The 24 hour news cycle is built on the fact that our brains crave bad news. We eat it up. And so, when we hear this prayer we hear those key buzz words: “lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” but we miss the beautiful declaration of the very nature of God that begins the prayer. God hates nothing that he has made. Let me repeat that because I know that some of you don't believe it. God hates nothing that he has made. He doesn't hate Jay for drinking nothing but beer and water for Lent. He doesn't hate Nate for walking away from him four years ago. He doesn't hate the people of Japan or Haiti or New Orleans. He doesn't hate Muslims, Jews, or Jehovah's Witnesses. And he doesn't hate you, no matter what you may have done or left undone. As our Ash Wednesday Service goes on to say, “God does not desire the death of sinners, but that they turn from their sin and live.”
God's desire is not to see us suffer, but to see us live life abundantly. The song that Lynn sang for us this afternoon sums this need or whole life repentance up so beautifully when in the second verse it says, “We are the broken, you are the healer; Jesus redeemer, mighty to save.” That song, “Be Unto Your Name,” was written by Lynn DeShazo of Birmingham, Alabama. In her 2010 book, More Precious than Silver: the stories behind the songs, Lynn talks about how powerful that line was for her personally. “I agreed with all the Scriptures like Romans 3.23 (for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God), which meant that I, too, was a sinner. Who'd be dumb enough to argue with God about that matter? But it's only been in recent years that I've come to understand how great a capacity I have for sin or, consequently, how much woundedness was in my own soul. I have to tell you that as disturbing as it was to discover such things about myself, it is both a blessing and the mercy of God. I simply could not come to repentance and healing for my sinful and broken condition as long as I was blind to it.”
That's what this season of Lent is all about. Not a season of darkness, but, as the old English word Lent suggests, a season of increasing brightness. As we take the time to honestly look at our lives, and allow God's light to shine in the darkest recesses of our souls, we find that God is not angry and smiteful, but ready and waiting, with open arms, to forgive and restore. Lent is a time when the stark reality of our brokenness leads us not into the pit of despair, but rather into the brightness of God's amazing gift of love and mercy. As we journey through Lent we ask God to remove our sinfulness and wretchedness and replace it with forgiveness and thanksgiving. That transition is possible only because of the merits and mediation of Jesus and his perfect love offering on the cross. “Holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain! Highest praises, honor and glory, be unto your name.”
As we gather this afternoon, a day shy of the mid-point of our Lenten journey, it is important to remember where we've come from. Ash Wednesday reminded us of our mortality, our sinfulness, our messiness. Ash Wednesday is our darkest night. Every day we walk the way of the Cross with Jesus, the light of Christ grows a little bit brighter in our lives. Every day we find ourselves a little bit freer, a little bit lighter, a little bit more able to love and be loved. May this season be for you one of growth until the bright shining light of Jesus Christ shines into the whole world. Amen.

He Revives My Soul

I believe in evil. I believe that evil has a face and hands and pulls a lot of strings. I have too much experience of strange circumstances around holy moments to believe anything else.  So, though I'm not sure why yet, I am certain that yesterday afternoon was almost lost to the Tempter.

It was an afternoon full of frustration both personally and professionally. It started at about 2pm when I headed to the chapel to setup the video presentation for TKT's Lenten program "The Gospel According to Buzz Lightyear."  I turned the projector on, the lights flashed as usual, and then it shut down. I tried it again, and the same thing happened. Uh Oh.

I decide to give it a break and sit down to work on the slideshow when a parishioner comes through the door, visibly upset, saying, "I'm about to ruin your afternoon."  Seems the group of Spring Breakers who have come to volunteer with our local outreach organization didn't clean the kitchen very well after breakfast. (I would find out later that several folks had been through the kitchen that morning and early afternoon but decided not to say anything about it).

Dutifully, I head to the kitchen, which, quite honestly, isn't that messy. Some crumbs on the counter, scrambled egg residue on the cooktop, some dishes in the sink and a rag on the floor. 15 teenagers can do a lot more damage than that, and I'm just not sure where to direct my frustration. Part of me just wants to wipe down the counter myself and forget about it, but no, they did leave a mess and should probably clean it up before our parish dinner. So I call, and they agree to send someone back. In the meantime, the fourth group of folk through the kitchen that day do the dishes and pick up the rag, so their return trip was kind of in vain, but still, lesson learned.

The man from tech support tells me the bulb is blown on our projector, but he'd be happy to sell me a new one for $299 plus tax, shipping, and that oh so slippery "handling" term. I decline, but now I'm really getting wound up. TKT agrees to pray for the projector and suggests as fix. I try one of my own first and after the longest 2 minute warm up in history, the projector comes alive. Seems the power cord was not fully plugged in.

Back in my office, finally, I'm working on a sermon for Sunday when an email from the Treasurer of my Property Owners Association pops up. Seems one guy, who has always been disgruntled, decided to certify that feeling by certified mail. He'd like to sue us (I'm on the board for 2 more months), though I'm not sure how or why. Still, not a happy feeling. Lots of anger welling up inside me.  The Tempter is doing his best.

In the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, however, the Lord revives my soul. Thank you Psalm 23. And it happens is such mundane ways. Last night, it was in the form of 6 noisy children busily coloring Nemo during the Lenten program. Sure, they can be distracting, but boy do they need to be right there, in the midst of us, coloring and giggling and moving around.

Perfect bliss in a world gone mad. The Lord indeed revives my soul, thanks be to God!

March 30, 2011


Yesterday's post was number 1,000 at draughting theology. That boggles my mind.  I didn't know it was #1K as I wrote it, but perhaps subconsciously my mind was already boggled when I wrote that Jesus' healing of the MBB wasn't on the sabbath.

Of course it was. That's the big freakin' deal. Jesus broke the commandment to keep the sabbath holy so he can't be from God so the healing is a huge huge problem.

I've been trying to consider how many ways Jesus broke the sabbath. 1- he and his disciples surely walked more than the allowable sabbath day travel distance = WORK. 2- he made mud - WORK (I guess). 3- he sent the MBB to the Pool of Siloam which is probably more than the allowable sabbath day travel distance - CAUSING SOMEONE ELSE TO WORK. 4- he healed a guy = THAT'S GOTTA BE WORK. 5- he disappeared into thin air when everybody started debating the issue of the sabbath = magic = WORK.

I think that is all the text gives us. Jesus broke the sabbath in at least 5 different ways. Part of the job of the Pharisees was to massage the commandments to make them make sense in everyday life.  Take, for example, the sabbath. If your donkey fell into a ditch on a Saturday morning, was it lawful to pull him out? It is certainly work, but if he's going to die if you don't, well then does the life of a donkey merit the breaking of the sabbath? These were the discussions of the Pharisees. They were kind of like perpetual seminary students, always dealing with the absurd.

Apparently, healing a man blind from birth was not worth breaking the sabbath. Jesus could have just as easily waited until sundown to deal with the man's whole issue, but he didn't. Right away, while they were still walking along, Jesus healed the man, Saturday be damned.

What rules do we have that make no sense in everyday life? What is our modern day equivalent of rigid sabbath keeping? In the Episcopal Church, the issue around who can receive communion is viewed this way. Many would ask, "isn't God's grace-filled gift of Jesus' body and blood more important than silly rules around baptism?" What about the silly debate around tweeting from the House of Bishop's meeting at Kanuga? How do we take our place in the life of the Church when the leadership wants to keep everything a secret? Isn't sharing it more important than whatever heresies might be mistakenly shared via twitter. (My guess at one of the reasons not to tweet, though I have no evidence that this is a real concern).

What rules do we have that make no sense in everyday life? What rules do we have that bring death? What rules do we have that exclude for no good reason? Jesus healed on the sabbath, so should we.

March 29, 2011

Picture This

You are a blind man, sitting out front of a large parish church begging. One afternoon you hear a crowd approaching. It isn't Christmas, nor Easter. It's not Ash Wednesday or even the sabbath. As you ponder why a crowd is approaching, you begin to hear the tone of their conversation. One you've heard over and over again in your years.

"Who sinned, his parents or him, that he is blind?"

Oh boy, here we go again. Another group of well-meaning religious types who have come to look at your plight in order to feel better about themselves. "Just keep the cup out and smile on," you think to yourself, "this too shall pass."

Somebody pipes up from the crowd, "nobody sinned, this man is blind so that the glory of God's amazing works can be revealed." "Nut job!" you mutter under your breath, "Thanks, but I'll take my parents sin as reason for my blindness over God's direct hand.  How is God glorified in my being ignored at the very steps people use to enter his worship? Bologna!"

The sound of a man spitting on the ground startles you from your anger cycle, and all of a sudden you feel something cold, slimy, and sticky upon your eyelids.

"What the..." Your blood pressure spikes, fight or flight takes over, you clinch your fist to swing at the unseen bully when you hear, calmly and with care, "Go, wash yourself in the pool of Siloam."

Without a clue as to why, you find yourself, with the help of some others on your way to the pool. They help you kneel at the edge of the pool, you lean over, splash water in your eyes, and...

You can see. And not just that, but you can process the newfound sight.

"What the..."
Why did the Man Born Blind (MBB) follow Jesus' instruction to go to the Pool of Siloam? Based on the details John gives us the man should have slapped the fool out of Jesus for messing with a blind man, not faithfully listened to his words. What on earth possessed him to get up and go?

The folks at Luther Seminary and are adamant about using the whole pericope this Sunday. Not just the interminably long John 9.1-41 (which roughly translated means ALL OF CHAPTER NINE) but they want us to read all the way through John 10:21.  The Seven Signs in John's Gospel follow a pattern: 1) sign, 2) conversation, 3) teaching discourse. The RCL gives us parts 1 and 2, and I guess assumes that part 3 comes in the amazingly insightful sermons that follow the Gospel lesson.  They aren't buying that, and quite frankly neither am I.

When Jesus goes on to explain the sign of healing the MBB, he tells us that seeing is important, but hearing and following are moreso.  "The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." (John 10.3-4)

They follow because they know his voice.  The MBB knew Jesus' voice even though he had never heard it before. He knew that there was hope and joy and freedom in his commandments, and so he followed them. He got up and did the ridiculous thing of washing off the spity, slimy, goo where the man who abused him told him too. And he could see. clearly. fully.

Picture that.

March 28, 2011

The Church has no choice...

... but to ordain sinners.

I went to seminary with unreasonably high expectations of the people I would meet there.  Truth be told, I went with unreasonably expectations of the me that I would meet in seminary.

In the pressure cooker that was the Post-Gene Robinson Episcopal Church, personal morality loomed like a storm cloud over VTS for my first 12 to 18 months there. Articles written in the student run magazine made the holy hill to look like an every-weekend-swingers-retreat. People looked at each other with suspicion, wondering what sort of skeleton was in their closet. It was an ugly time, full of intense and unhelpful emotions.  The fracture in the church was manifest in the fracture in the student body.

Conservatives wanted to find dirt on Liberals to point out how unsuitable they were for ministry. Liberals wanted to find dirt on Conservatives to shine a bright light on their hypocrisy. As we held each other to the impossibly high standard of someone else's expectations, we created pedestals for ourselves that were precarious at best.

At some point in my second year, however, things began to change. The Presidential election was over. One whole class of students mired in the clay of division had graduated. And somebody, somewhere, finally said aloud, "The Church has no choice but to ordain sinners."

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As we heard in last week's Epistle reading, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

On Sunday, when we hear the story of the man born blind, we will get a glimpse into the damage that can occur when people, especially those in leadership, forget that WE ARE ALL SINNERS. The man, healed by Jesus, is thrown out of the Synagogue. The official reason, "You were born entirely in sin, and yet you try to teach us!?!"

None of us has it all together. Everyone struggles with something. None of us is beyond redemption and none of us is without need.

March 24, 2011


"The time is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth..."

So we've looked at worship. And we've thought about spirit. Today is that pesky thing called truth.

But first, have you ever been outcast because of your lack of truth? For example, can you differentiate between a Steeler fan and a true Steeler fan? I can't, but that seems to be what most Christian leaders spend a lot of their time doing.  To be a Christian ins't enough these days, one must be a true Christian.

Jesus doesn't do us any favors on this point as he makes it clear that while some worship, others are true worshipers because they worship in spirit and truth.  Why does there always have to be stratification? My family is middle class, but doest he 42" vizio mean we're true middle class or are we posers?

It makes sense, I suppose, that true worshipers would worship in truth. They seem to go hand in hand.  The Barclay-Newman lexicon offers way too much information when it comes to that pesky word, alethia, truth.

1) objectively 1a) what is true in any matter under consideration 1a1) truly, in truth, according to truth 1a2) of a truth, in reality, in fact, certainly 1b) what is true in things appertaining to God and the duties of man, moral and religious truth 1b1) in the greatest latitude 1b2) the true notions of God which are open to human reason without his supernatural intervention 1c) the truth as taught in the Christian religion, respecting God and the execution of his purposes through Christ, and respecting the duties of man, opposing alike to the superstitions of the Gentiles and the inventions of the Jews, and the corrupt opinions and precepts of false teachers even among Christians 2) subjectively 2a) truth as a personal excellence 2a1) that candour of mind which is free from affection, pretence, simulation, falsehood, deceit

Two things jump out at me in this lengthy definition. One is that truth is defined both objectively (true no matter what the evidence might suggest) and subjectively (true based on the evidence at hand). *I think I've defined these correctly, there is a reason I avoid philosophy like the plague* The second, and more appropriate for this conversation, is that last definition #2a1 - that candour of mind which is free from affection, pretense, simulation, falsehood, deceit.

When we use worship to stir the masses into a frenzy - it ceases to be true worship.
When we use worship to steer people into a predetermined way of thinking about God - it ceases to be worship.
When we use worship to construct theology - it ceases to be worship.
When we use worship to further the agendas of humankind and turn people away from the one Truth of God - it ceases to be worship.

To worship God in truth is to focus on God alone. To strip away the trappings and the traditions and the music and the affections and to recognize, fully, that God is holy and wholly other and to rejoice that by his grace we can even attempt to realize his presence in our lives.  Anything else we might try to accomplish through worship is no longer worship. Some of those things might be good and right - teaching and preaching come to mind. Some of those things might be evil and wrong - coercion through emotional manipulation ranking highest among them.

As Sunday quickly approaches, I am checking within myself for the signs of true worship, for such the Father seeks to worship him.

March 23, 2011


The time is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...

So if worship is about attitude and posture. If worship is about submitting oneself to a higher authority. If worship is bowing one's face in honor of the Most High God. Then what does it mean to worship in spirit?

Pneuma from the Greek verb to blow. A video arrived in my inbox yesterday, the day Love Wins arrived in my mailbox, that offers insight into worship in spirit, in breath. Check it out.

G.O.S.P.E.L. from Humble Beast Records on Vimeo.

Putting away, for the time being, the focus on substitutionary atonement, which is great, but only one of the ways we talk about God's salvific even in Jesus Christ, the call in this video to return the very breath God gave us in praise is, I think, what Jesus is asking for in this passage. True worship offers God back everything he has given us, even the very breath that gives us life.

Gregory the Illuminator - A Homily

Last Thursday, at our monthly men's dinner, we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, complete with corned beef, cabbage, and Guinness. I noted during my talk that night that some of the greatest stories ever put to paper were written by hagiographers, those who write about the lives of the saints of the Church. In the olden days, one did not write comic books about super heroes and amazing feats, instead one wrote of the life of St. So-And-So full of miracles of ridiculous proportions. Surely Jesus told the truth when he promised the Disciples, “greater things than I have done, you will do.”
Today the Church remembers one of its earliest, non-apostolic saints, Greogory the Illuminator. Gregory was born about 257 in Armenia. Soon after his birth his father was accused of assassinating the King and was drowned, apparently with his whole family save two sons, while trying to escape. Gregory and an older brother are the only two who survived the ordeal, and Gregory was taken away to Caesarea in Cappadocia where he was raised a Christian. In about 280, he returned to the land of his childhood and was arrested when he refused to take part in the pagan customs and declared himself a Christian. His punishment would have been severe for that charge, but it was made worse when the King figured out that Gregory's father had killed his own Father, and Gregory was sentenced to twelve years in a pit. Here's where the story begins to get fun. The pit, according to legend, was full of dead bodies, poisonous filth, and serpents. Gregory's only means of survival was some bread, tossed daily down the pit by a faithful widow. As the years grew longer, King Trdat grew more and more maniacal, until one day he ordered a holy virgin, named Rhipsime, killed for refusing his advances. Trdat is then turned into a boar and possessed by an evil spirit in punishment for his terrible behavior.
One of Trdat's sister's, after having a vision, seeks out Gregory, who everyone thinks is long dead, and he is pulled from the pit. During the next 70 days, Gregory fasted, preached, and taught, eventually converting the King to Christianity. The royal court and upper class of Armenia soon followed, and after Trdat made Armenia the first nation to declare Christianity the official state religion, Gregory led the army as it moved throughout the country converting peasants and townsfolk along the way. It is said that the move to Christianity in Armenia was so swift and so pervasive that very little of the folk religion of Armenia is able to be pieced back together. According to his hagiographer, Gregory is said to have baptized four million people in seven days. He then ordained 12 missionary bishops who helped bring the Church in Armenia to a total of 400 bishops and priests too numerous to count before Gregory's retirement to the hills of Upper Armenia around 320. Gregory died in a small convent of monks around 331. The greatness of his story doesn't end there, as the great tradition of Saints Relics takes his head to Italy and his right hand to Lebanon, while at least his left hand remains in Armenia.
Gregory's life, before the embellishments of his biographer, was an amazing one, full of the amazing grace of God. His surname, the Illuminator, is one to which I think we all aspire. Jesus, during the early part of his sermon on the Mount, promised all of his followers, from Peter to the last man, woman, and child in the crowd, that as followers of his true light, they too could be a light to the nations. He admonished them not to cover that light with the bushel basket of pride or fear, but instead to he asks us all to let our light so shine before other that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. We won't have to shine light in the a depths of a pit of filth for a decade or more, but maybe you'll be called to shine a light into a friend or family members own personal pit of despair. Maybe you'll be asked to shine the light of Jesus into a heart that has long since turned dark and gloomy. Chances are, you'll never know how brightly you light has shone for someone in need.
This afternoon, as we remember Gregory the Illuminator, we pray again for the light of Christ to come into our lives, to shine through our cracks, and to bring honor and glory to God. Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven. Amen.

March 22, 2011


"The time is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth." There is much more to say about those two criteria: spirit and truth, but today I'm focused on the activity of worship.

In some churches worship means to sing. The "worship leader" is the lead singer in the praise band or the choirmaster. In some churches worship requires a spiritual (some say, emotional) response as manifested in hand waving, tongue speaking, dancing, tears streaming, etc. In some churches worship is staid and rote: we do this and then this and then this and then we eat. In some churches worship is the only thing they do.

But this word, worship, which shows up, in one form or another, 9 times in 5 verses during Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, is more than music, more than rote responses. It is even more than a Pentecost-like experience.

Proskuneo - the Greek root word translated as worship - is not about music or words, but about posture and attitude.

Freiburg - 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence 2) among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence 3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication 3a) used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank 3a1) to the Jewish high priests 3a2) to God 3a3) to Christ 3a4) to heavenly beings 3a5) to demons

UBS Short - worship; fall down and worship, kneel, bow low, fall at another's feet

UBS Full - (1) from a basic sense bow down to kiss someone's feet, garment hem, or the ground in front of him; (2) in the NT of worship or veneration of a divine or supposedly divine object, expressed concretely with falling face down in front of someone worship, venerate, do obeisance to; (a) toward God (MT 4.10); (b) toward Jesus (MT 2.2); (c) toward the devil and demons (MT 4.9; RV 9.20); (d) toward idols (AC 7.43); (e) toward human beings as given or claiming to have divine power or authority (RV 3.9; 13.4b)

Louw-Nida - to express by attitude and possibly by position one's allegiance to and regard for deity - 'to prostrate oneself in worship, to bow down and worship, to worship.'

When was the last time your worship involved lying prostrate on the ground before the awesome presence of the Lord God Almighty? How often does your attitude portray your allegiance to God? Do you venerate the Father in Heaven?

Or is your worship directed toward your worship? Is it all about the flowery language of the Book of Common Prayer? Is is all about the amazing music? Is it all about the powerful personality of the preacher? Is it all about something other than the Divine? If so, perhaps a return to lying face down is in order. Until, that is, God, by his grace, invites you stand up and bask in the glow of his loving kindness.

March 21, 2011

spirit and truth

I have probably heard John 4:23 read dozens of times. I have probably read it dozens more, but it wasn't until I arrived in the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary that I really heard that verse. John 4.23 is one of the selections for the opening sentences in Morning Prayer and when that verse was pulled out, on its own, separate from the larger story of the woman at the well, it really made me wonder.

"The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him."

What does it mean to worship in spirit and truth? How is what we do on Sunday in spirit and in truth, and how is it not. How is what we do in our daily lives done in spirit and in truth, and how is it not.

John 4.23 gets lost in the midst of everything else going on in the story of the Woman at the Well, but there is so much depth in that one verse. I might just spend the week pondering this verse and nothing else.

Sermon for Lent 2A - Why do you love me?

You can listen to the sermon here, or read it below.

Have you ever asked a loved one why they loved you? Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it. It can be really, really awkward. The most uncomfortable time is that moment of hesitation while their eyes betray the panic in their soul as the answer they think you want to hear gets compiled in their head. Often, those unhelpful members of your family and friend group can make things even worse. “I’m your uncle, I have to love you.” “I love you just because.” “I love you cuz Mom says I have to.” Can you feel the warm fuzzies? There was a great Miller Lite commercial last year that portrayed this very sort of thing. A couple is sitting in the park having a picnic when the boyfriend says, “I love this Miller Lite aluminum pint.” His girlfriend is quick to respond, “really, why do you love it?” “I love its wide mouth. I love its resealable cap. I love that it’s a pint. I love that great pilsner taste.” “OK, then,” she responds, “why do you love me?” “Um… b… We go out… I like what you are doing with this [as he points to her hair]… y’know… I love all your teeth. Why do you love me?” Without hesitation she responds, “You’re my soul mate.” And all he can say is, “ditto.” Isn’t love grand?
Have you ever wondered why God loves you? Have you ever ventured to ask God why he loves you? This might be an even worse idea. In the silence that follows, you will undoubtedly start thinking about all the bad stuff you’ve ever done: I lied about breaking that picture frame when I was five, I didn’t go back and pay for that extra piece of candy when I was 12, I made fun of that person in High School, I thought lustful thoughts, I thought angry thoughts, I held a grudge… the list goes on and on. How on earth could God possibly love me? Oh, dear God, why do you love me?
Every morning someone, somewhere tweets a thought under the twitter name, cslewisdaily. On Thursday morning that tweet read, "Christians don't think that God will love us because we are good, but God makes us good because he loves us.” What a beautiful sentiment, now if only we belived it with the same conviction of C.S. Lewis' ghost twitterer. Which brings me to the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Supreme Court. He is a good man. A righteous man. A Godly man. Nicodemus follows the law to the letter, and expects the rest of Israel to do the same. He has been blessed richly. His family lives in relative luxury. He eats well, his children are well educated, his stock portfolio is diverse and consistently out performs the S&P 500. And yet, Nicodemus is in search of something more. There is something about the life the Nicodemus is living that doesn't quite ring true with him. The problem, it seems, is that Nicodemus lives in a world that said, “God loves you because you are good.” And, at least according to John, that world was one that was very, very dark.
And so, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus. By this time, Jesus was a rather well known person in and around Jerusalem. In the passage just before this one, Jesus turned the courtyard of the Temple into his own personal demolition derby. He flipped tables, threw down change purses, released captive animals, and cried out “Stop making my Father's house a market place.” The money changers were angry. The Pharisees were angry. And Jesus was now well known.
As Nicodemus enters the room, he has to sense Jesus' tension. The whole group staying with Jesus must have jumped to their feet as the Pharisee entered, cloak covering his head, in the shadows of the night. And so he begins with words of comfort for Jesus and words of safety for himself, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God: for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But Jesus sees right through the politics and praise. He is not fearful of Nicodemus nor is he flattered by his words; instead, he sees what Nicodemus is searching for, and offers it to him straight away.
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born again.” To see the kingdom of God, that is, quite simply what Nicodemus wanted all along. In the midst of all of his pious actions, all of his rule following, all of his arguing over the letter of the law, what Nicodemus truly longed for was to see the kingdom of God. He was sick and tired of the love of God being dependent upon his goodness. Jesus offers him a better way. Jesus says, “God will make you good because he loves you. God himself is reaching out to you right now and asking, do you want to be born again? Do you want to start over with grace? Do you want to have light and life and love?”
Poor Nicodemus. He can't see the forest for the trees. He can't see how God could love him no matter what. He can't fathom a system in which God's love is freely poured out, like the rain, on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Jesus does his very best to sum it all up, “For God so loved that world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world through him might be saved.”
Nicodemus disappears from the scene somewhere during Jesus' brief speech in verses 16-21. At some point it all becomes too much to bear: being born again, God's unfathomable love, God's amazing grace – it is all too much, and so Nicodemus goes away, head covered, under the veil of darkness, seemingly gone forever, but the story doesn't end there. We will hear of Nicodemus again, on Good Friday...
But I digress. Back to the question at hand for us this morning, why does God love you? Does he love you because you are good enough to be loved? Even if you are, that's not why. Does he love you because you deserve it somehow? Even if you did, that's not why. God loves you because he is God and God is love. God loves you and you and you and me so much that even as we sit in darkness and sin, he sent his only Son to live and die as one of us. He loves the world even when it chooses to love darkness instead.
The real question that daunts us this morning isn't “why does God love me,” but rather “what am I going to do with God's unending love for me?” In the course of history, some have decided, “I'm going to tell God that I don't want or need or understand or desire his unending love.” And that is their prerogative, and they receive exactly what they desire. Others have decided, “I'm going to sit fat and happy knowing that God loves me because that is all that matters.” And that too is their prerogative, though I have to think that these are the ones God finds it hardest to love. Still others have decided, “God's love has changed me, and so I'm going to change the world, one person at a time, because of it.” It is this group of folks that have decided to live fully in the light. Their deeds, good and bad; their intentions, good and bad; their thoughts, good and bad are out there, in the open, for God to see. They trust in his love and forgiveness to strengthen and empower them. They rejoice in God's gift of grace and share it freely with the world around them: their families, friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and beyond.
What are you going to do with God's unending love? The choices are seemingly limitless, but the consequences for choosing poorly are severe. Will you share his love with others? Will you trust in him, even when what he's asking makes no sense? Will you give up that silly thought that you have to do something to earn God's love and instead focus on what you are able to do because he loves you. “Christians do not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” Let God make you good, be born again, receive his Spirit, and rejoice in his gift of grace. Amen.

March 16, 2011

It has been three years...

... and not much has changed.

Three Church years ago, in mid-February 2008, I was sitting at this desk pondering the lessons for Lent 2, Year A. I wasn't preaching that year, but I kept my habit of reflecting on the Sunday Lectionary anyway. During that week, I was compelled to write a post arguing that while John 3.16 may be a very important piece of scripture, John 3.17 was even more important.

Three years later, I'm preaching this week, and I still think John 3.17 is at least as important as 3.16. The change is that I think you can't make sense of one without the other.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believed in him might have life everlasting." - 3.16

"Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that the world might be saved through him." - 3.17

God's love, as expressed in 3.16, makes sense of his hope for salvation (literally "make whole, heal, restore") in 3.17. His desire not to condemn, as laid out in 3.17, explains why God would be so bold as to send his only Son to die on a cross.

They are part and parcel of one another and can not, and should not be separated. And while I'm at it, let me make the case here for you preachers to not stop reading at 3.17 either. The Lectionary folk decided to split the difference between those who think Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus stopped at 3.15 and those who think it runs on to 3.21. Either that, or they needed a way to shoehorn in the most popular verse in the Bible into some, regular, Sunday lesson. Either way, they did it a disservice by removing it from its rightful context.

3.18-21 continues and reads, "18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

If you've been paying attention at all these past couple of weeks, you have by now heard of the debate raging over Rob Bell's new book, "Love Wins." My copy is back-ordered, but the reviews I have read make me wonder why it wasn't just a 200 page exegesis paper on John 3.16-21. This mini-colloquy by Jesus is all about how love wins. Even though we constantly choose darkness over light. Even though, as John puts it, we love darkness rather than light. Even though we choose poorly over and over and over again.

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. God desires not to condemn the world, but to save it. Or to borrow from our Ash Wednesday liturgy, God desires not the death of sinners, but that they should repent of their sin and live.

Even when we screw it up royally, love wins.

March 15, 2011

sent to be a blessing

Jesus, necessarily it seems, wraps up a lot of Old Testament archetypes into himself. He is, as we heard from Paul last week, the new Adam. He is, as we know from elsewhere in scripture, the new Moses. This week, in his encounter with Nicodemus it seems that Jesus is highlighted as the new Abraham.

I say this with obvious contextual help from the Old Testament lesson for Sunday, Genesis 12:1-4a, in which Abraham is sent by God to an unknown land. He is blessed "so that [he] will be a blessing."

Abraham was sent to the land of Canaan in order to be a blessing to the nations.
Jesus was sent to earth so that he might be a blessing to God's creation.

Where have you been sent? How have you been blessed? What sort of blessing are you called to be for another?

The mistake that we very often make is assuming that God's outpouring of blessing is for us. "God has blessed me with" good health, wealth, a great family, an 18 year-old bottle of scotch, whatever. The reality is that our blessings are never really meant for us alone. Sure, we benefit from them and are encouraged to enjoy them, but our blessings are first and foremost to be shared as a blessing for others.

My relative wealth helps the local economy, lifts up the work of the Church, and modestly impacts a school in the slums of Nairobi. My daughter brings joy to her grandparents as well as to the congregation of St. Paul's on Sunday mornings. My good health allows me to serve my family, friends, neighbors and community. My 18 year-old scotch... well it is empty, so it can't bless me anymore, but I'm certain I must have shared a finger or two with someone.

Our blessings must not exist in a vacuum. We are called to share them all because they are not ours to begin with. All things come for thee O God, and of thine own have we given thee. Most days, I believe this ancient truth, and today I vow to share my blessings with the world around me. How are you sent to be a blessing?

March 14, 2011

Who is this "We" you speak of?

When I recall the story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus (which I rarely do), I always think of it as a two party story. Nicodemus meets with Jesus in the safety of the darkness. Just two people getting together for a clandestine theological conversation.

This morning as I read the story in John's Gospel, I noticed something that took me back, Nicodemus isn't acting alone. He hasn't gone rogue all by himself. He says to Jesus,"

Rabbi, WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God..."

We? Who is this "We" you speak of? Certainly, Nicodemus didn't speak for all of the Pharisees nor for all the leaders of Israel. He had just uttered the words that would be his demise, "tear down this Temple and I will rebuild it in three days." The wheels were already turning. The leaders were already nervous. The Pharisees were already looking for ways to rid themselves of this Rabbi called Jesus.

But Nicodemus tells us that not everyone hated Jesus because of what he was doing and saying. Some, in fact, thought he had to be from God, if for no other reason, because of the signs he was performing. (And Jesus was just getting warmed up.)

So who is this "We"? I don't know, but it is certain that there was at least a few members of the Jewish leadership who believed what Jesus was teaching. (As an aside, it seems only appropriate on the week of Nicodemus that the Pope's new book would exonerate the Jews in Jesus' death). Who of this "We" still felt that Jesus was from God three years later? As the pressure grew? As the Romans murmured? As the Legion closed in?

One of the dangers in reading these stories 2000 years later is that we lose the context. The place. The time. The background. The story begins to exist outside of space and time with Jesus and Nicodemus sitting on a cloud, sipping tea, and talking about being born again.

But that isn't how it happened. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, turned tables in the Temple and met in back alleys with folks who were too afraid to talk with him in the light of day. Pacts were formed, allegiances were tested, immunity idols were destroyed (or is that Survivor?). One of my goals this Lent is to bring the Incarnation straight on through. The messiness of God being born a human being. The irreverence. The insanity. The frivolity. The prodigal nature of God. Today that messiness is wrapped up in one two letter word, "we." Who is this "We"?

March 3, 2011

overcome by fear

If you hang around the church long enough, eventually you will hear about (or experience for yourself) a mountain top experience. They are those rare moments when God seems like he is sitting right next to you. Often, despite their name, they don't happen on a mountain at all. Camps, beach trips, ski lodges, these are the usual homes for mountain top experiences. Something about being outside of your normal life makes it easier for God to touch deeply.

I guess a ski lodge would be on a mountain, though many are not at the top but the bottom, but I digress.

People love to share their mountain top experiences with everyone they meet back in the valley of life. They are good stories, filled with grace, forgiveness, and often a lot of tears.

What people don't share, at least in my experience, is the fear that is so often clouding the mountain top. We hear about it in the Transfiguration story. Peter, James and John are overcome by fear. They had seen the two giants of their faith. They had heard the very voice of God. And they were sore afraid.

I wonder why we don't talk more about the times we've been overcome by fear. Why don't we share how God brought us to a place of extreme vulnerability so that we could learn about his faithfulness. Why do we feel comfortable sharing the good with our brothers and sisters and not the bad. Both are a real part of life. Both are a part of following Jesus.

I want to rejoice when you rejoice, for sure. But I want to be with you in your fears. Comfort you in your sadness. Not just because one of my job descriptions is pastor, but because that should be what disciples do. We share the life of faith *all of it* together.

Don't be afraid to share your fear. If we are honest with ourselves, we've all been there before.

March 2, 2011

Where does faith end and cleverly devised myth begin?

This blog averages about 30 readers a day, which, to me, is a surprisingly large number of people who actually come to my blogger blog page. I'd guess that between this page, google reader, and facebook maybe 50 people see my posts on any given day. All that to say, nobody is waiting for my response to the furor over Rob Bell's yet unreleased book entitled "Love Wins." You can read some of the responses here, here, here, and here.

But all of the ugly debate, vitriol, arrogance, etc. that has been thrown around by all sides (with the glaring exception of Rob Bell himself) I feel compelled to ask a question that seems to undergird the words of Peter in the Epistle lesson for Sunday. He says, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths..."

And so, in the midst of angry speech over a topic none of us can know the answer to I ask here and now "Where does faith end and cleverly devised myth begin?" It seems to happen in a lot of ways. In my denomination, for example, it often happens around the trappings of worship (what we call liturgy): are we wearing the right clothes, saying the right words, moving our hands at the right times, etc. Elsewhere, like in the world with which Rob Bell is associated, it happens around the use of words: does what you say (or write) line up with what the establishment has deemed proper? Is your view of hell right? Is your understanding of atonement right? Is your "The Bible says it, I believe it" bumper sticker stuck to your car correctly?

This is the problem with religion, not faith, religion. At some point in our efforts to pin down who we are, how we do things, and what we believe about our faith we always step over the line from faith to cleverly devised myth. Always. We all do it. The problem comes when somebody calls us on it and we get all defensive and angry and snarky.

Which is probably why a lot of people don't like religion. I don't like it a lot of the time. The stuff of faith is too big for us to know fully. God is beyond any box we might even think about building. Our salvation is worked out, not by us, but by the Triune God. When we pretend to know things that we can't possible understand, we delve into cleverly devised myth, and when we tread there God loses and Satan wins and people who might have been seeking Jesus decide that we're all just a little too ugly for their taste.

As Jason Boyett says in his blog post on the Rob Bell issue (here) "This is why people hate us."

So, my dear readers, whether you believe in hell or not. Whether you think hell is the place of fire described by Dante or not. Whether you think there is anyone in hell or not. Be careful as you tiptoe the edge of faith because those cleverly devised myths are the stuff to fear, not your brother or sister who might hold a view that is different from you.

A little humility goes a long way.

March 1, 2011

Listen to Him

The pages of the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with the voice of God. He speaks directly to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and more. The prophets hear his voice and act as his mouthpiece. The angels do his bidding and sing his praises. We hear his voice a lot in the Old Testament.

With the Incarnation of Jesus, however, the voice of God seems to move to the background. No longer do we need the booming voice from heaven or the still small voice in the silence because we have God with us, Immanuel.

It seems to me, then, that after the birth of Jesus, when God does speak, when his voice rains down from heaven, we should really pay attention to what he is saying. Take, for instance, the Transfiguration scene. Jesus, Peter, James, and John are on the holy mountain when Elijah and Moses come to join them. As if that wasn't enough, the very voice of God speaks from the midst of the cloud, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

That last bit caught my attention today. Listen to [Jesus]!

Jesus had a lot to say in the course of his ministry. He talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, what it looks like, how it is lived. He talked a lot about money, how we should use it. He talked a lot about the poor, the widows, and the orphans. But I'm afraid that most of us were taught not to listen to Jesus and his message of freedom. As a preacher, I realize how hard it is to share freedom with people, it is so much easier to list off the rules of Paul instead. It is a whole lot easier to create a new Law rather than figure out how to live out The Law in its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Drawing boundary lines is a whole lot easier than risking to open your arms wide.

But to do those things. To limit the Gospel. To define who's in and who's out. To make up a new Law is to do a great disservice. Not only are we not listening to Jesus, but we are ignoring God the Father while we're at it. That, at least in my humble opinion, is a whole lot more dangerous than any other error one might make in life. So then, dear reader, let's covenant together this day that we will strive to follow God's will and listen to Jesus.