Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

This story of John the Baptist… I have to say… it’s dark. It’s a story about a powerful man who, without much in the way of smartitude, unwittingly got himself steered down a dark, back alley in the middle of a moonless night only to find out much, much too late that this was a dead end road. This story is dark. As dark as it gets for a political family manipulating life or death things for their own twisted desires two thousand years ago. This story is dark. Dark like a depression you’ve been fighting for weeks and months that’s left your finger tips bloody from just trying to hold on to the edge of the pit for far too long. This story is dark. Dark like a windowless immigration bus driving your child away from you to a place you don’t know, by drivers who will soon forget your child’s name or where they dropped them off. This story is dark. Dark like the night the one you love is driven away under flashing lights. This story is dark. And what makes this story even harder… even darker… as if that was needed… is that we’ve all been told we must, we have to, we have no choice but to sit in the dark and DON’T TURN THE PAGE!
The story from Amos is dark too. It’s the sort of darkness that comes when the one who put the sun in the sky and breathed life into clay that became YOU… asks YOU to look at the world with honesty… with honesty, mind you… and tell that One if it’s still straight up and down like God made it. It’s the darkness that comes when the biopsy comes back as malignant. It’s the darkness that falls when the phone rings at 2 a.m. and you know a horror awaits you on the other end of the phone. It’s the darkness that comes when you deny God’s grace to yourself. It’s the darkness of letting go of the rope tied to someone you love. It’s the darkness of hitting rock bottom. It’s the darkness of a message unheard and a warning dismissed and a cliff approaching and being just out of reach. And what makes that darkness worse… as if it needed any help with that… is that the rule is: DON’T TURN THE PAGE!
In committees and synods and houses of primates.
Ideas for change make the nervous ones gyrate.
With Trolls and with ICE, and the GRU too,
Frightened white men mess with red, white and blue.
The POTUS and FLOTUS and SCOTUS as well,
Have something to say about what makes up hell.
In vast numbered lines of legislation galore.
In bills and amendments proposed on the floor.
In decades and eons of unbendable rules.
Followed religiously by scholars and fools.
In spread sheets with schedules all nailed to the wall.
With voices that speak like an unthinking doll.
In warnings from Presidents, Pundits and Sages
We’re constantly told: DON’T TURN THE PAGES!
But here’s the thing… what they don’t know and what they can’t ever seem to hear clearly, is what God has been whispering since the Wind of God swept over the waters in the very first sentence of the whole Bible… God’s been whispering to us through prophets and poets, to turn away from the dark and formless void that too often masquerades as the brains in charge of supposedly logical “thought” in this world. God is whispering for us to break the rules! Pick grain on the Sabbath, heal the sick, and raise the dead! And for God’s sake… God is whispering for us to absolutely, without delay… TURN THE PAGE! DO IT! DO…. IT!!!!! TURN THE PAGE!
Because what the rule following, all-change-is-bad world won’t tell you is that there’s Good News coming on that next page! On that page… the one after the horrors of John the Baptist’s beheading… the lost sheep find their shepherd! On that next page, five loaves and two fish multiply to feed five thousand! On that next page scarcity becomes abundance, the empty become full, the lost are found and in the end there was a left-over perfectly poetic pantry packed with panettone and perch!
And I’m here to tell you something that Ethyl (God love her), who has led the altar guild at St. Christina the Astonishing Church for the last 93 years won’t tell you. Something the accountants, synod lawyers and episcopal chancellors won’t tell you. Something the lectionary, liturgy and the library police won’t tell you either! I’m here to tell you something only poets, musicians and song writers will tell you. Only the bakers, barbecuers, fly fishers and fiddlers will tell you… something only the ones who color outside the lines with gleeful abandon will tell you! Something only the ones who put silly rhymes in the middle of sermons written on a desk with a solar powered waving pope will tell you… and THIS is what they’ll tell you:
TURN THE PAGE! Because when you turn the page from that darkness in Amos, God says “EXCEPT!” The sinful kingdom will be destroyed from the face of the earth… EXCEPT… not utterly destroyed. Things are bad… EXCEPT… the ruins will be rebuilt. The world is a mess and a mess of the people’s own making and there are consequences for that… EXCEPT... the day will come when food will grow so fast you’ll have to plow and harvest at the same time! The grapes will grow so thick that the mountains will drip with sweet wine. The day WILL COME, WILL COME, WILL… COME! Simply because the LORD WANTS IT TO COME, when what has been ruined will be rebuilt and everyone will have enough. Everyone… everyone… EVERY… SINGLE… ONE will have enough.
Now, out there, the world will continue to tell you in a strikingly, serious, series, of stories, and segments that the world is dark, deadly and desperate and we all must live in fear, frustration and forever foment! The people who have not taken time to address their demons, have not stopped running from the horrors of their past, have not dared to open their eyes to see the wonders that fall on them like rain and flow through them like breath… those folks will continue to tell you that whatever we do… we mustn’t… we shan’t… we positively, absolutely, unequivocally, it’s not in any way legal and we are a nation of laws for crying out loud so we CAN NOT under any circumstances EVER… TURN THE PAGE.
What I’m here to tell you… is that God says…

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Leave the Bag

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 6th Chapter

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Years ago, Kelly’s mom, got very sick.  They sent her to the University hospital in Birmingham.  We flew in and when we got there we found out she was dying.  I had been a pastor for about five years by this time, so I knew a few things about hospitals, cancer, death, dying and funerals.  The new thing I learned is that in the crisis, as the spouse of the baby sister, the other siblings couldn’t hear anything I had to say.  

In difficult times, families revert to the old ways.  The old way was ignoring the baby sister… and with her, her husband too it seems!  Kelly just rolled her eyes.  She’d literally grown up with it!  But as the oldest sibling in my family it was a challenging revelation to discover that, as the Gospel says it, “I could do no deed of power there!”  I could have been genuinely helpful.  But they just couldn’t receive it.  I did have some very relevant experience.  They just couldn’t hear it. 

I think the first part of this Gospel story is in here to let all of us know that even JESUS himself had days just like that!  Even Jesus encountered situations and people who, at that moment, just weren’t in a place to receive what he had to give, regardless of how much they needed it and regardless of how wonderful the gift might be.  So if that happened to Jesus himself, when it happens to us, it should help us to remember, it’s not personal.  Jesus models how to handle those days and those folks.  While the people took offense at Jesus, seeing him acting above his pay-grade… Jesus didn’t take it personally.  He noticed it for sure…  how could he not!  He was “amazed” at their unbelief, for sure, and with that little jab about the prophets not being welcomed in their homes, it looks like he was a bit frustrated too!  But he didn’t lash out, bad mouth them or make personal attacks.  He also didn’t keep pounding his head against that brick wall.  He did what little good he could do there and then hit the road.  

In the second part of this lesson, Jesus sends out the disciples, teaching them to work that same way.  He told them “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust.”  Let it go.  I think if Jesus had lived in the age of social media, he would have said, “If any thread will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, shake off the dust on your mouse and click away!”  

There’s another piece to this lesson that I think is just as important but a lot harder to see.  When Jesus sends out the disciples, he sends them out with “no bread, no bag, and no money in their belts.  Sandals only and no coat.”  This certainly helps the disciples see that it’s not just them or what they bring with them that does the work.  God’s working too!  And THAT’S Good News!  It’s not all on us!  But there’s something deeper going on here as well.  Jesus set the disciples up to be interdependent with the communities they would visit.  As places welcomed them, put them up for the night, fed and cared for them… those were the places where amazing things happened!  Jesus was teaching them through their experiences on the road, that amazing things happen in interdependent, welcoming, hospitable communities of people!  In communities that put up walls and insist that everyone make it on their own, healing and wholeness often just keep walking down the road and into the sunset. 

The piece about not taking a “bag” with them turns out to be something the people of Jesus’ day would have clued into right away, but it’s something that isn’t as obvious to us today.  In those days, there were a group of philosophers known as the Cynics.  They believed in living an austere life, but also living a completely self-reliant life.  Disciples of that school of thought wandered around carrying “a bag” so they wouldn’t have to rely on anyone as they preached a message of living in the middle of everyone, but not depending on anyone.  

When Jesus sent out his disciples without a bag, Jesus was preaching without words that the TRUTH is, God created human beings to support and care for one another… that together, in community, amazing and powerful things happen.  By welcoming the stranger… by living a life of hospitality… by caring for people along the Way… you end up becoming a community of healing and wholeness.  He was showing them that the solution for the demons of the world is for us to come together, feed, shelter, and welcome one another.  The cynical solution was that we should all make our own way… follow nature’s example of the survival of the fittest, but Jesus was proclaiming that’s not how God made humans!  Humans were made to walk and live an interdependent existence with one another… THAT is the path that leads to healing, wholeness, light and life.  

Jesus shows the disciples what the dust is that needs to be shaken off humanity’s feet.  We need to shake off the dust of unwelcoming communities, entrenched, tribal and fear-filled lives.  We need to shake off the dust of the cynical idea of survival of the fittest and everyone for themselves.  But Jesus ALSO shows us what we need to move TOWARD in our lives as well… we need to always work to become more and more, communities of welcome and hospitality.  Move toward embracing the gifts of those who are new to town.  Move toward a knowledge that God is working… doing deeds of power through us and through our neighbors and remember always that God is working even while we sleep.  May we at Christ Trinity continue to model an interdependent community of welcome and hospitality.  May we not get stuck covered with dust, pounding our head against walls that are not yet ready to hear and may we keep watch for God’s deeds of power which, even in these very difficult times, are still happening all around us and even now, changing the world!  Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

River Revelations on a Story Sandwich

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

First off, thank you for the gift of vacation.  And thank you for being a congregation who says, “Go!  Enjoy!”  So I went and enjoyed!  And I did enjoy, and even though over the river and through the woods and down the two track road to Karas Camp was not quite out of the reach of the news, the time away allowed me to remember something I often forget and I think it might be something many of us forget… particularly in these sorts of very terrible times.  

What I remembered, is that God is working.  Now, I usually remember that God’s DESIRE for all of creation is “Shalom”… a wholeness created by a radical re-ordering of the world.  God’s desire is for the world to work in a way where the widows, orphans and foreigners (the Bible’s shorthand for all those on the margins) are cared for and everything hoarded by the few is redistributed, so that everyone has enough… enough food, shelter, safety, health, security, dignity, self worth and purpose.  I usually remember that’s God’s DESIRE… for spears to be beat into pruning hooks, which means war is no more and for everyone to have a fig tree to sit under which means everyone has enough food AND a little extra time to grow dessert!  What I forget is that it’s far more than just God’s PASSIVE desire.  It’s something God is ACTIVELY WORKING to make happen in this world!  The part I REALLY forget is that God is actively working to make that happen BOTH with my hands AND WITHOUT MY HANDS!   It’s not ONLY our hands that are working to change the world.  It is God’s presence APART FROM ANYTHING WE DO that changes the world as well! 

This Gospel lesson reminds us of that with this story sandwich.  One story starts and is interrupted by the other.  The second story starts and resolves in the middle of the middle of the sandwich, and then Mark returns to the first story and finishes up.  In the first story, Jesus HEARS about the little girl.  He LISTENS to the cries of the lamenting parents, and GOES to bring wholeness out of brokenness, healing from disease, life out of death… all hands-on-action-verb stuff.  

As the Church, we’re called to that same hands-on-action-verb stuff.  We’re called to use our ears to listen, our feet to go, our voices to cry out and our hands, hearts, minds and resources to make wholeness happen where there is brokenness… healing where there is disease… life where there is death.  As the Body of Christ, you and I are called to live out that ELCA slogan, “God’s Work, Our Hands” and do the work needed to reorient the world from what it is now, into that “Shalom” sort of creation God intends.  

But in the middle of THAT story there’s the other story and that’s not an accident.  We see another woman healed as well and reoriented from dis-ease to health, from brokenness to wholeness and from death to life.  BUT, in THIS story, the healing happens PASSIVELY.  Now, here’s the part I remembered in the river… the part I all too often forget… You see, Jesus didn’t see this woman, or do any action-verb-stuff for this woman, but God was working anyway.  Without Jesus doing any action-verb stuff, she was reoriented from dis-ease to health, from brokenness to wholeness and from death to life!  BOTH were healed.  BOTH were given life.  ONE because Jesus heard, cared, went, and spoke and through all that hands-on-action-verb “God’s Work, Our Hands” stuff.  The OTHER woman got her world reoriented from death to life simply because wherever God goes, the world is reoriented from death to life in God’s wake…  without any assistance from you or me!  

Walter Brugemann tells us that's something worth thinking about, because we often forget that God is, what he calls, a “lively agent and a real character.”  He goes on to say that conservatives don’t allow for God to be a “lively agent and a real character” because they’ve got God so locked down they believe God only works their way and progressives don’t allow for God to be “an active agent and a real character” because they don’t really believe that God can work in any way other than through our hands. 

What I had forgotten and what I was able to remember in the river, is that God is working!  Through our listening, yes.  Through our voices, yes.  Through our protests and activism and hands and hearts and doing, yes, yes and yes!  AND, AND, AND God is ALSO working simply by being present in the world.  God’s presence apart from anything we do is transforming the world into a place of “Shalom,” a place of wholeness, a radically re-ordered world where widows, orphans and foreigners are cared for and everything that is hoarded by the few is redistributed, so that everyone has enough.  A place where weapons are made into garden tools and everyone has dessert to eat after dinner.  And really, when you think about it… who am I… who are WE… to think that God won’t get what God desires for the world?  

God is working!  THAT’s the Good News of Mark’s woman-healing-story-sandwich.  The world is being healed!  It doesn’t stay torn apart.  There IS reason to hope even in these darkest, most overwhelming moments because God is working!  God is certainly working through our empathetic ears, insistent voices, caring hands and crafty minds, but God is ALSO working, as the prophet Isaiah saw, while sitting on a throne, the hem of God’s robe filling the temple and touching the earth.  It is our call to do “God’s Work” using “Our Hands” AND it’s just as important… JUST AS IMPORTANT to regularly stand in a river, listen to the poets, sing songs together, laugh, share a meal and a glass of something refreshing and tell the stories so we ALSO remember that all of creation, RIGHT NOW, while we’re all doing absolutely nothing, is brushing up against the hem of God’s garments and in God’s wake, the world is being made new!  Amen.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Waiting In The Darkness

Mark 3:20-35

Jesus went home and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

T.J. and Dave come out on stage and say, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up.”  The lights go off.  No one knows where this is going.  No one.  Not the audience.  Not even T.J. and Dave!  This is improv.  But it’s improv with no starting point.  Just two guys on the barren stage looking at each other.  Waiting.  Waiting for one of them to begin.  In the few minutes that takes waiting in the darkness, some people actually leave!  They can’t take the tension of not knowing or even having a clue as to what comes next! 

We humans like do patterns.  We like to have clues and put clues together and anticipate how things will turn out.  It’s helped us survive.  We notice “leaves of three” and that pattern helps us make better hygiene decisions when camping.  It’s why we like Sherlock Holmes and Columbo.  It’s why, when T.J. or Dave eventually says something and the other responds, the tension in the theatre drops for everyone, including T.J. and Dave.  Everyone gets a clue where it’s going.  Those patterns of life are helpful… Well… helpful until they aren’t.  What happens when something new comes along?  What happens when old patterns no longer fit?  What happens when someone begins to discover, explore and live into their true, authentic, self and that authentic self is suddenly very different?  

What happens, is what happened in today’s Gospel.  People who knew Jesus before… who knew his old patterns as a good, Jewish, son and brother… they were disturbed that Jesus wasn’t following those old, established patterns.  They could no longer anticipate where he would go next so they forced him into a box they understood… they said he was crazy.  The Scribes too, couldn’t see where he was coming from or where he was going.  He didn’t fit the patterns.  He healed on the Sabbath, which shouldn’t be possible!  He was an unpredictable rebel in an occupied country.  It scared them and so they forced him into a box they knew… they said he was possessed!  

In both cases, they had trouble allowing Jesus to live into his true and authentic self as the Son of God.  Now, from our perspective it’s easy to give the family and scribes grief for not catching on, but we have 2000 years of perspective.  T.J. and Dave describe their improv process as stepping into complete darkness… into an abyss, and trusting that the next step will rise up and be there when they put their foot down.  And that’s what Jesus’ family and the Scribes were being asked to do… step out into an abyss and trust that the next step would appear.  If that was you, would you take that step?  If that was you, would you trust the unseen or would you try to fit this never before seen thing into some other, more familiar box?  If that was you, would you have let Jesus live into his true, authentic self?  

It’s still a good question for us.  How do we handle Jesus being his authentic self?  How do we do with the death part of death and resurrection?  How do we do with Salvation being for ALL of creation… including the mean people!  What do we do with an angry Jesus and the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable?  How are we at allowing God to be God and not insisting that God go into a box of our own making?  And what about the regular people in our lives?  Do we allow them to live into the authentic person they have been created to be?  Do we give them the space and support to explore their next step, or do we have a step in mind for them?  Are we willing to sit with them in their darkness, before the lights come up and someone finally speaks… are we willing to love them no matter who they are when those lights come on and they find their voice?  Are we willing to love ourselves as we sit in our own darkness?  

In this lesson there is a beautiful piece, in the middle of this story about Jesus, his family and the Scribes.  It might not seem beautiful at first, but if you are willing to see it authentically, it is something wonderful.  Jesus begins by saying, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  This is Jesus telling us that as people stop fitting into old patterns and as they begin to explore, experience and experiment to find their truly authentic selves, there is infinite grace and forgiveness for them in their journey and for us as we struggle to keep up with them along the way.  Regardless of the missteps and blunders and slips made along the way as we inevitably stumble not quite getting it right the first or even the fiftieth time.  God knows this is a difficult, but holy journey and there is infinite grace as you walk this path and stumble along the way… and there is infinite grace for us as we struggle to support others as they look to walk their path.  

The second part of that piece where Jesus says, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” is harsh but not nearly as easy to commit as most people worry about.  Blaspheming the Holy Spirit means waging a relentless campaign against God.  The word in Greek makes it clear, this isn’t about having questions, or searching… it’s not even about doubts or getting things terribly wrong… it’s not even about being frustrated, scared, angry or wandering lost in the darkness for a while.  To blaspheme the Holy Spirit you have to oppose God relentlessly.  To commit this sin, you need to insist that God has never and will never do anything new and you must slam the lid closed on the box you've built for God and sit on top of it without ever considering that God might just be doing something new.  

This lesson is a call for us to allow God to be fully God.  It is a call for us to be open to God doing new things in new places.  This lesson is a call for us to set out on our own journey as well... a journey to discern our authentic selves and not limit ourselves to the standard, culturally approved boxes and paths.  This lesson is a call to be gentle with those on that journey and grace for when we don't get it exactly right.  This lesson is a call to sit in the darkness, knowing it will be okay, until God brings up the lights and the Holy Spirit provides the next step.  So, this week, trust the Holy Spirit… sit in the darkness and open yourself to God’s new thing.  Amen. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why Sabbath?

Mark 2:23-3:6

One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

In Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why”, he points out a common pattern of great leaders.  While many of us start with “what” we do, great leaders begin with “why” we do it.  For him, the key, is to begin everything with WHY.  Marketing, advertising, product development, a political campaign or a movement to change the world; to really connect with people, leaders must begin with WHY.  It turns out that beginning with WHY makes connections in our brains at the deepest and most lasting levels.  From that deep beginning in WHY, then you can talk about HOW you want to do something and then talk about WHAT doing something might look like. 

In this Gospel lesson, the Pharisees were focused on WHAT people did on the Sabbath.  Was Jesus harvesting grain on the Sabbath?  Was Jesus traveling on the Sabbath?  WHAT was Jesus doing on the Sabbath?  When Jesus got to the Synagogue, he saw the man with the withered hand and he tried to get the Pharisees to go deeper.  He wanted them to consider WHY they did Sabbath.  Is the Sabbath something that gives life or takes it?  Jesus wanted them to really think about the Sabbath and not just do what they’ve always done.  Their silence left Jesus angry.  They wouldn’t even try to go deeper.  This is the only time in the Bible we read that Jesus is angry.  Even the cleansing of the Temple was not done out of anger.  

The Pharisees were stuck.  The rules God had given them to help them better connect with God and one another… the rules themselves had become their god.  Jesus asking WHY was seen as Jesus questioning god.  They were worshiping the Law rather than the One who gave the law.  Jesus knew that they were stuck in their fear of Jesus’ power and out of a fear of the wrath of the Roman Empire crashing down on them.  All that fear caused them to be unable to even talk about HOW we do Sabbath, let alone WHY.  

But you and I… we don’t have to be stuck that way.  We can think about the question the Pharisees refused to engage. So, WHY do we do Sabbath… or maybe a better question is WHY does God think Sabbath is a thing we humans should keep?  I think a bunch of ancient and modern day Pharisee types believe we need to do the Sabbath “because God says so”.  But “because I say so” has never been a satisfactory answer from anyone and it’s also not a real answer to WHY, is it?  So, WHY does God think a Sabbath is a good idea for us?  Well, it’s not to boost God’s self esteem.  God did perfectly well for all that time before humans showed up on the scene, thank you very much, so I’m sure God is just fine without us stroking the Divine Ego.  Keeping the Sabbath is also not some sort of a rung on a ladder that will help us climb up closer to God.  Ever since God breathed life into the lump of clay that became humanity, God’s been deeply and intimately connected to you and me and all of creation.  We certainly can’t get any closer to God than God has already gotten to us and every other molecule of all of creation.  So then WHY Sabbath?  

When Jesus said to the folks gathered in the Synagogue, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” he hit the WHY of doing Sabbath, right on the head.  God has told us to do Sabbath… to take one seventh of our lives as off-time… time apart… down-time… battery-charging time… God asks us to do that, because the One who designed us… the One who created us… the One who loved us into being… is also the One who best knows how we tick as human beings.  God didn’t just create us… God also wrote the instruction manual for us!  

And this one-seventh time off thing isn’t just meant to be for us humans.  God, it turns out, has designed all of creation to work that way.  Donkeys, oxen, livestock, migrant labor, men, women, boys and girls… everyone and every living thing needs one seventh of their lives spent in Sabbath time… a time of rest… a time of renewal.  

Folks often think of the ten commandments and all of God’s Law as something put in place to get in the way of us having fun… either that or a set of random rules sent by a god who just likes rules for rule’s sake.  But that isn’t the WHY of the ten commandments… that isn’t the WHY of the Law.  The best way I have heard to think about God’s Law is that God’s Law defines the playing field for being human.  Following the law keeps us on the field… it keeps us in play… it keeps us being fully human.  When we break the Law we go off the field, out of bounds, into foul territory… and when we do that, we are operating as LESS than the human being God created us to be.  

Playing by the rules.  Following the commandments was never about God setting traps for humans.  It was always about God, the One who made us, sharing with us how our human machine runs best.  God’s desire for us, and for all of creation, is for us to live an abundant, joy-filled and purpose-filled life.  The WHY of Sabbath is that Sabbath is a necessary component of experiencing that abundant life!  May we take steps toward that Abundant life, looking to the One who made us and loved us into being to guide us toward that goal, by taking Sabbath, by doing Justice, by loving Kindness and walking humbly in this world in love.  Amen.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bueller, Bueller, Bueller

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 3rd Chapter

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have
seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Now, I’m a solid Trinitarian… Father, Son and Holy Spirit… sort of guy, but the preaching pitfalls on this day are legion!  Because of that, many Episcopal priests get the Deacon to preach and Lutherans are just now getting on board with Deacons… but either way, I don’t have a Deacon.  Others choose to simply lull the congregation to sleep with a history lesson on how the doctrine of the Trinity developed to avoid the theological pitfalls.  While still others just jump head first into one heresy or another trying to use water, an egg or even an apple pie to explain the infinite nature of God… and, of course, they fall miserably short.  In an attempt to avoid being either boring or heretical, I’m just going to talk about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! 

Believe it or not, that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds!  Both Ferris Bueller in that iconic 80’s movie and Jesus in this lesson use the exact same, unique, technique to communicate with their audience.  In the movie, at various times, Ferris turns and looks right into the camera and talks, not to the other characters in the film, but to you and me in the audience.  It’s shockingly different!  It grabs your attention and that’s just what Jesus does toward the end of this lesson in John’s Gospel.  Both Jesus and Ferris break the fourth wall!

But before we get to that we’ve got to back up a little.  The Pharisees were a group of faithful Jewish folks who, about three hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, began to get uncomfortable with how much of the outside world’s traditions and ways were infiltrating the traditions and ways of the Jewish people.  The group that rose up in reaction to that change eventually became known as the Pharisees.  They were super strict, very legalistic, and an ultra exclusive group created to, well, “Make Judaism Great Again” and push back against all that change.  But then came Jesus.  

The Pharisees... ol’ Nicodemus in our story was one... didn’t know what to do with Jesus.  Jesus did miracles that they believed could only be done through the power of God, and at the same time Jesus lived a life that included every sort of foreigner and sinful person he ran into… a way of living they believed alienated you from God!  How could those two things both be true?  Nicodemus and the Pharisees had worked very, very hard for three hundred years at this point to safely place God in a very well defined and thoroughly theologized box… a box where God would be safe and sound and not subject to the ways of a changing world.  That night Jesus told Nicodemus… there is no box!   

Nicodemus couldn’t grasp any of it and who can blame him?  This was strange stuff!  Born from above… water, Spirit, and wind... What?  Imagine hearing this stuff for the first time... It’s just WEIRD!  But Jesus wasn’t TRYING to be confusing.  Jesus genuinely wanted to open Nicodemus up to the truth that God was bigger than he could imagine.  That God could not be contained in that box that he and the Pharisees had built.  

The truth and enormity of God’s nature and love is impossible to fully wrap our minds around.  The metaphors and doctrine we use to talk about God don’t fully contain God… they’re just the best we can do… they’re the best even Jesus could do!  They give little windows into the way God works, but never the full picture.  We can talk about how we experience God… as the Creator, as the Son, Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit… and they are true, but even that truth is just a part of the infinite that is God. 

At the end of this encounter, Nicodemus still didn’t really understand what Jesus was trying to tell him.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”  And then it happens!  Jesus turns and breaks the fourth wall.  The Greek grammar makes it clear that Jesus is no longer talking only to Nicodemus.  Before we had been watching a scene where Jesus talked with Nicodemus, but now suddenly, Jesus turns and talks directly to you and me too!  Jesus says to us, “If I have told ya’ll about earthly things and ya’ll do not believe, how can ya’ll believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Jesus isn’t mad, he’s simply turning to the camera and telling us all… Nicodemus isn’t alone here folks… the fullness of God is beyond your understanding too!  And it turns out that’s alright.  We don’t need to fully wrap our minds around God to receive the gift of God’s love and grace.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Jesus's got this… God’s got this!  

Our part in this is simply to believe… but not believe with our intellect.  This isn't about getting everything figured out in our heads… it's not about checking all the correct doctrinal boxes.  Our part in this is to do as Nicodemus did.  In spite of not having it all locked down, ol' Nick kept following Jesus.  He tried to get his fellow Pharisees to treat Jesus with justice.  He even followed Jesus after Jesus died, helping Joseph of Arimathea care for Jesus’ body.  

That’s what believing really is.  It’s not certainty.  It’s not getting God to fit in a box we can imagine.  It’s taking the next step to follow Jesus, even when you can’t fully wrap your mind around any of it.  Real faithfulness is following Jesus, living our lives in the Jesus way of living… struggling to be in a loving relationship with our neighbors and with a God we’ll never fully wrap our minds around and trusting that God's infinite love has got us, even when we can't ever fully get God.  Amen. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Blowing Through Doors, Burning Down Walls

A Reading from Acts, the 2nd Chapter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The first time I met Kelly’s dad, I was meeting a police captain and an Army sergeant major.  When our daughter brought a boyfriend home a few weeks ago, he had to meet me, BUT he ALSO had to go to church for the first time… not just the first time at THIS church… the first time he had EVER gone to any church in his entire life!  I think between the two experiences, he probably wins.  Plus he seems to be a good guy so I don’t mind him winning that contest.   

But that encounter brought to the front of my mind, something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.  And that thought is that it might not be a bad idea, with uniquely “churchy” things, not to assume everyone knows about “churchy” things these days and I might ought to back up and start at the beginning from time to time.  So today is Pentecost, which is one of those uniquely “churchy” things, so let’s back up to the beginning!

Pentecost is one of the three big Jewish festivals where, as a faithful Jewish person back in the day, you would, if at all possible, make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate.  It happens fifty days after Passover.  Passover (another churchy thing) was the celebration of the people of Israel being freed from their bondage in Egypt where they were slaves.  Fifty days after walking out of Egypt, the people found themselves parked at Mount Sinai, where they were given the ten commandments.  That was the first Pentecost.  Now, this wasn’t so much about getting a new set of rules as it was about the creation of a new community… it was the beginning of a new way of living together as God’s people.  The old way of living in Egypt had ended.  A new way of living had begun, not as property, but as God’s children.  

The Pentecost we read about today is the story of an event that happened many years later on that Jewish festival day.  That’s why there were Parthians, Medes, and people from lots of other difficult-to-pronounce places gathered in Jerusalem.  When the SECOND Pentecost happened that day, it echoed many of the same themes as the FIRST Pentecost.  Like the FIRST Pentecost, this second Pentecost was also the beginning of a new way of living together as God’s people.  Because of that, some people call it the “Birthday” of the Church… although calling it the “Baptism” of the Church is probably better since the Holy Spirit comes to us in Baptism.  This second Pentecost, also opened a new way for God’s people to live together… a new, radically-inclusive way of living… a way all people could be included as Children of God.    

Here in the book of Acts (which is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel) the symbols of wind and fire (two of the most unpredictable things you can imagine) bring together people from all over the known world and now, through the transformational power of this Holy Spirit… things that have always divided people are blown apart.  Cultures, borders, languages, walls… everything that humans do to keep people apart from one another are burned away by this Spirit.  This second Pentecost is about God presence, in the form of this powerful, mysterious, Holy Spirit, bringing the world back together from all the millions of ways that it has been torn and broken and shattered apart.  

And that work… the work of the Holy Spirit blowing apart walls and shattering divisions and bringing people together in an inclusive community of equal human dignity… That isn’t JUST the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we are Baptized, we are baptized with that same Spirit and we too are also given the Holy Spirit’s work to do in the world.  

In Baptism we are asked in the liturgy to renounce Satan and stand up against all the forces that rebel against God’s desire for this inclusive kind of community.  We are asked to renounce the evil powers that corrupt, destroy and diminish other human beings and creation.  We are asked to accept the loving and inclusive Way of Jesus and trust in his ways of grace and love.  In Baptism we promise to continue to build this new, unified community with study, fellowship, worship and prayer.  We promise to stand together and persevere in resisting that divisive, hateful, evil.  We promise to both speak and live the ways of Jesus… live the Good News WAY Jesus lived… a way of love that is stronger than hate… a way of unity that is more powerful than division.  We promise to serve the Christ that lives equally in ALL people and we promise to strive for justice and peace in all the world and respect the dignity of every human being… a dignity that transcends every wall and border.

In the FIRST Pentecost God brought together the people of Israel.  Freed from the indignity and evil of slavery in Egypt… Freed from the people who saw them as less than human.  God rejected that evil notion and formed them into a new community.  In the SECOND Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew apart national boundaries, cultures and languages and burned down the notion that only some were God’s chosen people and then that Holy Spirit again formed a even wider, more inclusive, unified community.  

Now at TODAY’S Pentecost… at OUR Pentecost, we look at out at the same sorts of powers at work in our world… powers that continue to to divide, build walls, reject the presence of Christ in every person and reject the dignity God gives every human being…  And at OUR Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blows and burns against all of that evil once again and insists that God’s vision for creation will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!  At our Pentecost the Holy Spirit is again burning and blowing... and God is again calling each and every one of us to join in the work begun in that first Pentecost and continued in the second Pentecost.  So, come Holy Spirit!  Burn the divisions and blow down the walls!  Move us boldly to confront the evil that demonizes and divides, and empower us to join with you in this new day, creating the world God intends for this to be!