June 30, 2011

Independence v. Freedom

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 3, 2011 is very topical. Frighteningly topical. Dangerously topical. As I sit and read headlines of President Obama's unsurprising economic news conference and the unsurprisingly partisan responses to it, I'm left wondering just how close to the "don't talk politics from the pulpit" line.

If you know me, you'll know that I probably won't take a particular party's stance on anything. Instead, if I were to compare our current political climate to anything it would be children (yes, children) in the marketplace (only these children would never deign themselves to enter the marketplace until reelection time rolls around) yelling at one another, "We played the flute for you, and you didn't dance. We wailed and you did not mourn."

The Daily Show, as always, portrays this childish back and forth quite well.

All of this, with The 4th of July upon us as well, has me thinking about the difference between Independence and Freedom. We celebrate the 4th with its official title, Independence Day, to our detriment. Before you accuse me of being one of those anti-American Episcopal priests, let me explain.

Though the fight in 1776 was to gain our independence from the crown, our goal was not, at least I don't think, to isolate ourselves in an individualist utopia. That is to say, moreso now than ever, independence is impossible. As the world grows flat and the economy is increasingly global in scale, we are more dependent on more people than ever before. Over the past 200 or so years, we have bastardized the Gospel to make it about independence rather than about freedom.

Jesus never offered independence. He offered a yoke, that is, by its very nature, an instrument of dependence. Jesus did, however, offer freedom. His yoke is gentle, his burden is light. The freedom Jesus offers is by way of loosing the bondage of sin. He wants us to be free to be in right relationship. Free to be dependent, you might say. Oxymoronic, sure, but truer to the message of the Kingdom than either the "I'm OK, you're OK" message of the left or the "Personal salvation" hope of the right.

Now, all I need to do is throw this all away and find something that will preach. Here sermon, sermon, sermon!

June 29, 2011

Good News

Not The Good News, but good news none-the-less.

My Rector decided on Old Testament Track 2. No weird Genesis lesson this Sunday. Yay!

Well, that's not really the good news I was talking about either. The good news that struck me today was the word of restoration from Zechariah. Every prophet has a moment like this in their story. God is most certainly angry. Humanity has most certainly failed to live up to expectations. God might even punish by way of war or famine or pestilence.

But God always promises to restore. The story never ends in condemnation, it always returns to joy. I'm reminded of my favorite verse, John 3.17, "The Son of Man came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be saved."

The good news of Zechariah is that God once again promises restoration.

Saints Peter and Paul

Usually, when we gather on Wednesday to celebrate a feast day, it is somebody most of us, myself included, have never heard of. Today, however, we celebrate two of Christianity's three most famous men. Jesus, the obvious pick for number one, is celebrated everyday, of course, but today we remember the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, numbers two and three (and the order probably flips depending on who you talk to.
Paul, a well-educated Pharisee and Roman citizen was late to come to the party. As we all know, his conversion happened only after he was a persecutor of the Church. Peter, an uneducated fisherman from Galilee was with Jesus almost from the beginning. As the Church began to form after the Day of Pentecost, Peter and Paul had several well documented spats over the inclusion of Gentiles in the Way. Paul writes several times of his need to rebuke Peter who continually called for Jewish exclusiveness, or, to use my favorite seminary term, Judaizing, the need to follow Jewish law in order to be a follower of Jesus.
It might be one of the best lessons for the modern church that we remember both Peter and Paul on the same day. Despite their disagreements that touched to the core of what they believed, their common faith in Jesus as the Messiah led them to work together for the glory of God. Their belief led them both to Rome where both were martyred during the persecutions of Emporer Nero in 64AD. Paul was granted the right of a Roman citizen and beheaded while Peter was crucified upside down.
In the year 96, Thirty-two years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, Pope Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians says, ““Let us come to those who have most recently proved champions; let us take up the noble examples of our own generation. Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and competed unto death. Let us bring before our eyes the good apostles—Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy endured not one or two, but numerous trials, and so bore a martyr’s witness and went to the glorious place that he deserved. Because of jealousy and strife Paul pointed the way to the reward of endurance; seven times he was imprisoned, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a preacher in both east and west, and won renown for his faith, teaching uprightness to the whole world, and reaching the farthest limit of the west, and bearing a martyr’s witness before the rulers, he passed out of the world and was taken up into the holy place, having proved a very great example of endurance.”
I could go on for hours with the history of these great two saints, but I'll spare you the details and instead focus for a moment on the example they left for those of us who two-thousand years later are still doing are best to follow the Way of Jesus. The first comes from Paul's second letter to Timothy. Writing from prison in Rome, his death not far away, Paul calls on young Timothy to take on the mantle of a teacher, leading new believers along the pathway of righteousness. And while it seems like this letter might be intended for pastors, I think these words apply to us all, “proclaim the message, be persistent, convince, rebuke, and encourage... and carry out your ministry fully.” As Paul talked about elsewhere, each of us has been given gifts of the Spirit, and in faithfulness we should exercise them for the good of the Kingdom.
The second example comes from the mouth of Jesus himself, after the resurrection, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus gives Peter his marching orders: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Much ink has been spilled to decode what Jesus is saying here, but it seems simple enough to me: If you love Jesus, take care of one another, serve one another.
In the two thousand years since Peter and Paul were martyred, we've done a lot to make Christianity complicated, but when it comes down to it, the lessons we learn from these great Fathers in the faith are sufficient: love God, love neighbor, and use the gifts God has given you. Now, go and do likewise. Amen.

June 28, 2011

Welcome back?

Good morning, dear reader. My apologies for a week's absence, and many thanks to God for a week's vacation.  As mt last post said, rest was much needed.

I've entitled this post welcome back? because of the messy nature of this Sunday's lessons. The Genesis lesson, which though semi-contimuous, still begins in a very weird spot and expects the congregation to recall last week's lesson, Paul's famous "I do what I don't want to do" rant, and what might be Jesus' toughest kingdom parable, all on a short week. So good to be home.

I think I'll start this week by going back and rereading the section of Rob Bell's "Jesus wants to save Christians" about yokes. It is an interesting bit of metaphorical history as a Rabbi's yoke was his teaching. Some had very heavy yokes full of laws and their strict interpretations. Others, as Jesus claimed, had yokes that were lighter. Jesus' yoke is only two laws heavy, as we claim in the Collect for Sunday, love God and love neighbor.

Have a great week! I'll see you again tomorrow.

June 16, 2011


After six days of creation, God rested.
After two days of junior high missions, we rested.

Sort of.

The infighting seems to have cooled some.
The questions are still rapid fire.
But after three hours of hard gardening work at the East Lake UMC Community Garden, we retired to Alabama Adventure, a local water/theme park for an afternoon of fun in the sun. The kids had a great time, and, though I did partake in a couple of rollercoaster rides, I tried to just relax.

Rest is an important thing. Without it we get grumpy. Without it we get touchy. Without we get unhealthy: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Sin creeps in with tiredness. We are less attuned to the Spirit when all we can think about is sleep.

God rested on the seventh day, and commands us to rest in him as well. We are to take time for refreshment because God cares deeply for us and wants us to know that our humanity relies upon him rather than our own ability to push through.

So we rested.
I'm still tired, of course, but we rested.

June 14, 2011

The list is not exhausting

As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he instructs them to preach, baptize, and teach.  The teach piece has me this morning as his instructions are to "teach them to obey everything I have commanded you."

This is not a terribly long list.

Love God. Love neighbor as self.

And yet. And yet, as we talked about at our adult forum on Sunday, many churches are Pauline rather than Christian. Many Churches teach the many rules of Paul, written to the many issues of a young church, addressed to several different communities and cultures, as the commandments of Jesus.  We need a lot of rules as we start out in the faith, its true, but as we develop our sense of spiritual hearing, the rules become less important as the Spirit begins to lead with power and might.

Jesus told his disciples (that is to say, us) to preach, baptize, and teach. He commanded that we obey just a few impossibly simple rules, and gave us the Spirit to guide us along the way.  Too often ,however, pastors use the rule thing to gain power and authority rather than allowing the Spirit to empower and strengthen another.  Jesus' list of rules is exhaustive, but it shouldn't be exhausting.

June 13, 2011

But some doubted

It is a real shame that we have to read the Scriptures through post-enlightenment, 21st century, western eyes. In our current context (though I think/hope the follow statement is less true everyday), doubt is something to be avoided. Thanks to the scientific method, we can know with near certainty about every minute detail of the world around us.  To doubt is either to be too lazy to test a hypothesis or to be grasping at unprovable ideas.

But I don't think that was the case for Jesus' disciples. I think the doubt we hear about in Trinity Sunday's Gospel lesson was a holy doubt. The sort of doubt Jesus wished had been applied to some of the Pharisaical interpretations of Torah. The sort of doubt that takes it slow, listening, waiting, discerning between the Spirit of God and the rules of men. This doubt allows the disciples the chance to experience Jesus in all his majesty and mystery. This doubt is not a sign of weakness, but a beautiful engagement between human and divine.

We need to re-engage the ability to doubt, to allow folks to ask questions, to wait, to sit, to listen, to discern. It is not a weakness, a defect, but a chance to find God.

June 9, 2011


Every Pentecost I'm reminded by the liturgical calendar that it is also called Whitsunday, but I've never taken the time to look up what that meant.  It's Pentecost, who cares.  But as I struggle to find the words to speak to St. Paul's this weekend, I'm grasping at straws, looking for where the Spirit is lurking, waiting for me to find her.

I googled Whitsunday today and found an interesting article about it on wikipedia.  (Don't tell the Board of Examining Chaplains)  In reading the article, especially this quote from 15th century Canon, John Mirk, "Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy Wytte"  I all of a sudden came to realize the real meaning behind the second collect for the day:

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the life giving breath of God.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is made manifest in tongues as of fire and a mighty rushing wind.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is made manifest in wisdom and discernment.

I think too often people think the are lacking the Spirit in their lives because they don't do miracles or speak in tongues, but honestly, the Spirit is most often present in the everyday decisions of life; those moments where the choice is between self and other.  When we make those right judgments, we can be assured the Spirit is at work within us.

June 8, 2011

From Disciples to Apostles...

From Apostles to the Body of Christ.

Most people don't know that there are two Creation stories.  Some people would call me a heretic for even saying such a thing.

Most people will hear the Revised Common Lectionary's appointed lessons read on Sunday and not realize that they are hearing two Pentecost stories.  Of course, there is the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection, a high feast in the life of 1st century Judaism.  We all know the Acts story. Tongues like fire. A might wind. Many languages. Peter's speech.

John's pentecost (lowercase because it isn't The Pentecost) plays second fiddle.  But I think it plays a huge roll in the transition that happens over the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Think about it.

Day 1 - Easter Day - Jesus appears before his disciples behind locked doors. He breathes the Spirit into (a better translation than on, at least according to workingpreacher.org) them as they are sent.

  • Disciple = student
  • Apostle = one who is sent
On Day 1, the disciples become apostles (yes, I know some of them already were apostles, but bear with me)

Days 2-39 - Jesus makes other appearances, offers last lessons, gives final instructions

Day 40 - Ascension Day - Jesus leaves the earth for good having told them, when the Holy Spirit comes you'll be my witnesses (literally, matyrs) to the ends of the earth.  Two men in white robes tell the apostles, he's coming back, but it ain't gonna be today.

Days 41-49 - the apostles hang close, trying to figure out what it all means.

Day 50 - The Day of Pentecost - the Holy Spirit comes with power and might and the Church is born when 3000 are baptized.  The Church, ecclesia, what Paul will later call "The Body of Christ" is formed.  Those who have been taught (disciples) and sent (apostles) are now infused with the Spirit who gives them the Word to speak and they are, until his return, the Body of Christ, the incarnate Word on earth.

Days 51-today - we continue to struggle with what it means to be disciples, apostles, and the Body of Christ. Sometimes we skip ahead, sometimes we try to stay at step one, sometimes we forget that the Gospel is to be shared, but with the help of the Spirit we grow into this new creation, the Body, in fits and starts, each and every day.

June 7, 2011


John 20:21 is a mantra here at Saint Paul's.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

Sometimes we are sent to far away places like Haiti or Kenya or General Convention.
Sometimes we are sent to not-so-far away places like Birmingham, New Orleans, or the Diocesan Office.
Sometimes we are sent to nearby places like the Family Promise Day Center, a Habitat Build, or Camp Beckwith.
And sometimes we are sent next door.

Truth be told, and despite what we may come to believe over time, God's sending never stops. We have 85 year old members who help their "elderly" neighbors with yard work. These folks hear the Spirit moving and follow her lead. Others don't. Other's choose to act like the disciples by shutting the door, drawing the blinds, and sticking close to home.

I guess they just choose not to listen. That has to be it, because the Spirit is always moving, always calling, always leading. If we find ourselves comfortable and complacent, then we have tuned the Spirit out. Maybe it is time to reinvigorate our mantra. Time to pick it up again. Time to speak it, as a community engaged in God's work of restoration.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

June 6, 2011

A spiritual kick start

It is often noted that the Church, especially the western Church, has a very weak understanding of the Holy Spirit.  There are many theories as to why, but this morning, as I read the lessons appointed for Pentecost, I'm pretty sure we are light on the Spirit because the Spirit is dangerous.

Think about it.  In the Pentecost story from Acts the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind and tongues of fire. And that's not the scariest part. the worst part (at least for my 21st century, former mainline church ears) is that the apostles and disciples find themselves in the streets, speaking in foreign tongues, preaching the good news of Jesus.  If we are honest, that sort of behavior frightens probably 98+% of us.

Or take Paul's treatise on spiritual gifts. The things the Spirit calls us to: healing, prophecy, giving, etc. are scary. They require us to leave the comfort of our holy huddle. They might make us look strange before others. They could get us in trouble with the powers that be.

And what about John's Pentecost? "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you"? Jesus' being sent put him on a cross. His life was one of nearly constant hardship. "The Son of Man has no where to lay his head."

Trying to live into the teachings of Jesus is hard enough. When you add in the supernatural stuff of the Spirit, things get downright dangerous, but in the end, you can't have faith in the triune God without all three persons being represented in your life. We ignore the Spirit to our own detriment. Worse, we ignore the Spirit to the detriment of God and the Gospel.  This is dangerous stuff we're dealing with, but Jesus never promised it'd be easy.

June 1, 2011

Eternal life

"And this is eternal life, to know the Father and his only Son Jesus Christ."

In the 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth the details around eternal life seem to have grown.  Truth be told, the imaginations of artists, writers, poets, and theologians have created a bit of a mess for those of us in the trenches of everyday ministry.  The question asked of Jesus about the woman married to seven brothers seems tame compared to the many ways in which our modern conceptions of heaven and hell have become convoluted.

How old will I be?
Will that kid who picked on me in middle school be there?
Does Alabama always win in heaven?
Does Alabama always lose in heaven?
Will I have my hair back?
Will I catch the big one?
Will my ex still bother me there?

It is really hard for us not to think of heaven in terms of this mortal life because this mortal life is all we know.  So we picture pearly gates, mansions, rivers, and trees. We picture angels playing harps as we walk around in white robes thinking lofty thoughts and, at least occasionally, praising God.  We think we have a list of questions to ask, things like: why didn't you cure cancer, why didn't you stop the tornadoes, why'd you take my mother/father/sister/brother so young, etc.

Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom. He talked some about eternal life. He talked very sparingly about heaven. For all the speculation over the last 2000 years, it has to be said that Jesus' description, nay, definition of eternal life in the High Priestly Prayer should be sufficient.  Eternal life is knowing God the Father and God the Son. Sure, it is a little weak in the pneumatology, but still, knowing God is a sufficient description of eternal life. The other details, sights, sounds, smells, or Will Farrell movies are insignificant in the light of God's grace and love.