Motive, Means, and Opportunity

Like many of you, I have watched my fair share of cop shows, which has made me something of an expert on the topic of criminal investigations.  With my keen eye for detail, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime du jour.  My wife, on the other hand, seems to know what’s what before the first commercial break.  Anyway, despite my inability to actually piece the clues together, I have learned a lot from these made-for-tv dramas that help me in everyday life.  Or, at least, I tell myself that to convince myself that Law and Order reruns aren’t a total waste of time.

One thing I have learned is that in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect actually committed the crime in question, the police must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is the reason the crime was committed.  As Lieutenant Provenza of the LAPD’s Major Crimes division would say, “It’s always the husband,” because spouses always have the most motivation.

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It’s always the spouse.

A crime always has a reason, even if that reason is random violence.  So finding the motivation for the crime will help determine the suspect.  Next, the police must show that the suspect had the means or the ability to commit the crime.  This means that the 98 pound teenager maybe didn’t strangle his 250 pound neighbor or the woman with no hands couldn’t have shot the sheriff.  Finally, they must determine the opportunity to commit the crime.  Here’s where everyone’s favorite cop show word, alibi, comes into play.  If the suspect can’t be placed at the scene of the crime while it was being committed, they police have failed to answer the challenge of reasonable doubt.

What does this have to do with the Lectionary readings for Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.  For the second week in a row, we have texts that are dealing with evangelism.  Our Collect asks God to give us the grace necessary to answer the call and proclaim the Good News to all people.  If we take this prayer seriously, then means and opportunity are both covered right there.  That is, if we believe in the power of prayer, by praying for this grace, God has already bestowed it upon us.  Those to whom we are to go and the words we are to us are already available to us.  What is missing, in my experience, is the motive.

Paul recognized this very early on, exhorting the Church in Corinth to live as if Christ was coming back tomorrow.  Two thousand years later, it can be hard to muster up the motivation to share the Good News.  If Jesus hasn’t come back yet, what’s the rush?  If I’m not going to die tomorrow, why risk it?  If those to whom I am called to share the Gospel seem long for this world, why hurry?  When it comes to evangelism, what really seems to be lacking is motive, and yet, what better motivation is there than having the Good News of God’s saving love to share?  Why hold back when there are people who are living without the knowledge of that love?  Why tarry when you can invite another to come into the joy of God’s grace?

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The Call to Follow

Why preach?  I don’t mean this existentially, although there are some who would ask this question that way.  Why, in a world that is increasingly skeptical of “experts” do preachers think they have the right to stand before their congregations and tell them anything?  That’s not the question I want to ask.  As a preacher, you’d assume that I am fairly well convinced of the power of the homiletical craft.  Rather, as one who preaches, I have to regularly ask myself, why?  Why is this sermon worth hearing?  Why this text?  Why these words?  More often than not, the why question comes down to asking myself, “what is the goal of the sermon?”

For many these days, the goal of a sermon is to offer a practical lesson from Scripture that is applicable for our lives.  This is a good goal, by and large.  Sermons that get stuck in the past – historical lessons on what was happening in the context in which Jesus lived – can be interesting, but won’t get much traction over time.  It is helpful to bring the story forward and to help our people and ourselves understand what this particular bit of holy writ has to do with life in 21st century America.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to over emphasize ourselves in the text.  Eisegesis and vapid moralization aren’t all that far away when the goal of the sermon is to make the text offer some lesson for our congregation today.

These questions and concerns came to mind this morning as I read the short Gospel passage appointed for this week.  It is the familiar story of Jesus calling Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John from their family fishing boats to become “fishers of people.”  My initial reaction was to think about what was happening in the hearts and minds of the four newest Disciples that would allow them to drop everything and follow Jesus.  I wondered about the reactions of their families.  I worried for their livelihoods.  I pondered what it might take for each of us to respond immediately when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  While I think these are all worthwhile questions and would make for a decent sermon on the text, I found myself wanting something more.

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It can’t just be about me.  The goal of the sermon ought not just be about giving the congregation something they can hold on to or motivating them to change their lives in some way.  Rather than another sermon admonishing them to drop everything and follow Jesus (which isn’t really a thing for 21st century Christians), what if the sermon focused instead on the call to follow in and of itself?  What if, instead of focusing on the response, the sermon looked deeply into the one who does the calling?  Isn’t that what grace is all about?  Not about how I can get myself over the hump to follow Jesus, but how by God’s grace, Jesus brings me into the kingdom.

The text doesn’t give us much to work with, but I think there is something there.  The one who is preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near beckons.  The one who is called the Son of God calls us by name.  The one who is the Good News invites us to share in it.  There is more to dig into here, and time will tell if I can find a sermon that doesn’t devolve into “will you follow Jesus?” but for today, I’m adjusting the goal of my sermon; not to motivate us to follow, for that is God’s job, but rather, to focus on a deepening relationship with the one who calls.

Requiescat in pace, Father B

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Father B               Father Keith                Me

“Ye have heard, Brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel, and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity, and of how great importance this Office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”

The opening paragraph of the Ordinal for making a priest in the 1928 Prayer Book serves as a quality definition of the life and ministry of The Reverend Canon William Maurice Branscomb, Jr.  Affectionately known by many as Father B, Maurice Branscomb was a priest par excellence.  He carried the office with dignity.  Even into his 90s, Father B would make every effort to show up at diocesan events, always in a black suit, with a roman tab collared shirt, and the liturgy of the church he loved on his lips.  He served faithfully as a Messenger, Watchman, and Steward of the Lord, always willing to preach the Gospel and to teach his people about the meaning of Christ’s love for the whole world.

What defined Father B, at least for me, however, was his willingness to risk everything in order to feed and provide for the Lord’s family.  While he was ordained under the 1928 Ordinal, I actually think the 1979 Examination captures his ministry perfectly.  “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  During his active ministry, Father B served in Birmingham, Alabama.  As a devout Anglo-Catholic, he modeled his ministry after the slum priests of mid-19th century England and the Oxford Movement.  He steered clear of serving the big steeple churches, opting instead to care for those on the margins: the young and old, the weak, and the poor.  So true to this calling was Father B, that there was a time in Birmingham when the poor would show up at his door having been sent there from the much more affluent congregations across town.

Well into his 80s, Father B continued to serve the church.  Standing behind the altar at Immanuel Church, Bay Minette, he faithfully administered the sacraments, proclaimed the word of God, and declared God’s absolution for us sinners.  As his health caught up with his age, he was less able to serve the Church physically, though he continued to model for many of us what it meant to be a priest even in retirement.  He was always ready to serve up tea and welcome a guest into his home.  He was beloved in his retirement community.  He stood faithfully by his wife, even in the depths of her dementia.  He was a man of deep prayer.

Father B entered the nearer presence of his Savior on Saturday.  While I am sad for the loss of such a powerful witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, I give thanks for everything he taught me.  You were an inspiration, Father B. A priest of dignity and devotion.  If I can someday be half the priest you were, I will be blessed beyond all measure.

On Thursday morning, the college of Presbyters in the Central Gulf Coast will gather to give their brother priest back to God.  On Thursday evening, Bishop Scott Mayer of Northwest Texas will make a priest at Christ Church in Bowling Green.  I cannot attend both, but I will bring these events together in my prayers all week, asking God to pour out the Spirit that thrived within Father B upon Mother Becca, a willing and faithful servant.  Would that we all had a little bit of Father B’s spirit within us.  The world would be a far better place and the church would be served by far better priests.

Rest in peace, dear one, and may I never forget your witness to the Truth.

Not just hearing, but listening

I have always loved the story of God calling Samuel.  It makes for great theater.  There is the subtle dig at the faithfulness of God’s chosen people in the note that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  There is the mentor relationship of the old man, Eli, and the young prophet, Samuel.  There is the prophecy of the destruction of the house of Eli, with words that make the ears of all who where them tingle (such a great line).  What I find most appealing in the story, however, is the call itself.

Because of the strained relationship between God and Eli, Samuel hasn’t had much opportunity to experience the prophetic word.  In fact, the author tells us that he “did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord was not yet known to him.”  So, when Samuel, laying down in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant, heard a voice calling him by name, he assumed it was Eli.  Three times this happened, until Eli, with his eyes dim both literally and spiritually, realized what was going on.  He sent him back, hopeful that Samuel might get a fourth chance to hear the voice of God.  Eli’s advice is as simple as it is profound, “Say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'”

There is, as we all know well, a distinct difference between hearing and listening.  This is true in interpersonal relationships, as well as in our relationship with God.  In teaching about prayer, it is often said that we need to move beyond talking at God so that we can hear God’s voice.  If we stop at simply hearing, we haven’t gone far enough.  Samuel heard, but did not understand.  It is only when we begin to listen, actively and carefully, that we can really begin to discern the will of God for our lives.

Listening isn’t easy.  It requires us to give time and full attention to the one who is speaking, and in a world full of distractions and schedules full of commitments, it can be hard to move beyond a cursory hearing and into deep listening.  I know this is true in my life, and I’m sure it is in yours as well.  I also know that when I take the time to really listen, I am blessed.  Even when the news is hard to hear, like it was for Samuel, it can be a blessing.  So today, amidst of the fog of another late-night football game, I’m reminded to slow down, to move beyond hearing, and to listen for God.

The Episcopal Church’s Budget is a Dim Bulb

There was a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church.  For the first time in my recollection, people were genuinely excited about the E word: Evangelism.  We had a Presiding Bishop who was comfortable talking about Jesus.  A groundswell of support saw a $2.8 million budget amendment to fund evangelism, especially in the growing and heretofore under-served Latino population.  There were revivals planned.  A new Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation was hired.  One of the best church planting minds in the church came on board to serve as the Staff Officer for Church Planting Infrastructure.  It was looking like we might finally be living into the prayer we pray every Second Sunday after Epiphany, and taking our responsibility, having been “illumined by Word and Sacrament” to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

Things were looking good, until the Executive Council met from October 18-21, 2017, and all the hope and good will came crashing to the ground.  The working budget for the next triennium (2019-2021) shows a 41% cut in evangelism spending.  This cut includes a full 1/3 cut in spending for new congregations from $3 million to $2 million and a cut in total Latino/Hispanic ministry spending of more than 45% from $1,219,400 to $558,000.  Meanwhile, as has been noted by several very learned practitioners, including church planter, Susan Snook, mission re-developer, Everett Lees, and Forward Movement Executive Director and discipleship guru, Scott Gunn, investment in the administrative side of things, has increased by close to $4 million in the Presiding Bishop’s office (a roughly 47% increase) and $5.25 million in Governance (nearly 38%).  All that, and there is still $40 million set aside to pay for operations, finance, and legal fees!

In the support document for the budget, the Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission (FFM) indicated that this budget has been built to reflect the Presiding Bishop’s vision for The Jesus Movement.  They explicitly state that evangelism, racial reconciliation & justice, and environmental stewardship are the priorities of this movement, and yet, these priority areas make up only 10.1% of the overall budget.  The only real priority in this budget is the governance, finance, legal, and operations of the Episcopal Church.  Of course, we should have known this, since these four items make up the cornerstone of the Episcopal Church’s strategy.

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This Sunday’s Collect and Gospel lesson are centered on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We pray that we might have the grace to go forth and shine the light of Jesus Christ in all the world, and we hear the story of Jesus calling Philip to follow him.  In turn, we hear about Philip finding Nathaniel and inviting him to come and see.  Unfortunately, the current 2019-2021 budget of the Episcopal Church would have us turn inward and hide our light under a bushel basket.  The Episcopal Church’s draft budget is, at best, a dim bulb.  As with all things in Christ, there is hope!  There is still time to make a difference.  Prior to January 10th, you can make your feelings known to FFM and the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) by way of their survey.  Let them know that evangelism is important.  Make sure they hear that ministry to our Latino/Hispanic sisters and brothers is a vital part of our ministry. Help them to see that calling something a ministry priority means funding it extravagantly.  Ask the question, “What is our chief cornerstone: our administrative structures or Christ Jesus our Lord?”  As we saw on the floor of the 78th General Convention, the people can make a difference.  You can make a difference.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Great Tears – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.


One of the joys of my children getting older is that we can now watch shows that entertain across the generations.  Gone are the days of endless episodes of Curious George and Paw Patrol.  Now, in the evenings, we can all pile on the couch and watch something that everyone will enjoy.  One of our favorites over the past year has been Americas Got Talent.  The variety show format seems well suited for our wide-ranging tastes.  Musicians, dancers, stunt artists, you name it, on AGT someone who has tried to win a million dollars doing it.  My favorite performances of this past season were the street magicians.  There is just something amazing about close-up magic. The prestidigitation of the magician means that what you think you see isn’t really what you are seeing.  The thing you are paying attention to isn’t really the thing.

Mark’s take on the Baptism of our Lord recalled the street magicians I saw on Americas Got Talent because the thing isn’t really the thing.  Having just heard Mark’s introduction a few weeks ago, we’ve already heard five of the eight verses in today’s Gospel lesson.  We know about John appearing in the wilderness.  We’ve heard about the crowds who came seeking baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.  We can imagine John in a camel hair coat with a leather belt around his waist and a locust wing stuck in a bit of honey in his matted beard.  Mark spends five verses describing the baptism of John, but this story isn’t about John.

This story is really about the baptism of Jesus by John.  True to form, Mark is skimpy on the details.  We get none of John arguing with Jesus about whether or not he should be baptized, like we do in Matthew.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ personal prayer life like we do in Luke.  All we know is that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

It is a story about the baptism of Jesus, but it is also about a whole lot more.  The thing we should really be paying attention to comes next.  Sure, Jesus went into and out of the water, thousands of others had too.  What is remarkable is what happens immediately as Jesus comes up out of the water.  While Mark is directing our attention down here, the thing we really should be paying attention to is happening up there.  The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark is adept at hiding things in plain sight.  Despite beginning his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God, one of Mark’s key motifs is the Messianic Secret.  Again and again, Jesus commands his disciples and those whom he heals to not tell anyone what they have seen and heard.  Unlike in the other Gospels, in Mark, the words we all know well from Jesus’ baptism seem to be addressed only to Jesus, as if the crowd gathered at the river bank couldn’t see or hear what was unfolding.  As the reader, we get to see all the amazing details, even if they feel hidden among a bunch of superfluous content and sleight-of-hand.  Like the close-up magic of a street magician, however, if we pay careful attention to everything we are seeing and hearing, we can begin to understand what is really happening.  While our eyes are focused on the water, Mark’s deeper lesson is found in the great tearing of the heavens.

There are actually two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, happens in our lesson for today, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The second comes just as he breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

In this first great tear, we see the veil between humanity and God being removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  It is in this moment that the heavens show fully what God has done in the Incarnation.  From here on out, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane.  God is not an aloof deity, up in the sky, watching us like a divine security guard.  In the Incarnation, God permanently opened the barrier between earth and heaven, and brought the fullness of the human experience into God’s self.

Not only do the heavens being torn in two break the barrier between the human and the divine, but by tying this story with the beginning of creation in Genesis 1, we see that our own baptisms, following the model of Jesus’ baptism, take us all the way back to that very first moment when God turned chaos into order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death reside.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, through heavens torn asunder, God pulls us out of the overwhelming chaos of the world and brings us into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where there is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into the Kingdom, where God brings all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

As momentous as this is, the thing we are seeing still isn’t the thing.  The Messianic Secret won’t fully be revealed until the day of Jesus’ death.  The culmination of it all won’t come until the second great tear happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As Jesus breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the tearing of the heavens looks back upon the moment of Creation, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter fully into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth made accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus, all of humanity can now find themselves in the holiness of God.  As this second great tearing happens, it is a Roman Centurion who is the first to fully understand what has happened.  In words that echo the words Jesus heard at his baptism, the Centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity has been made present to God.  These two great tears that bookend the ministry of Jesus have forever changed the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer is God some far off deity, but rather, God is fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God is opened to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Despite all the hurry and all the secrets in Mark’s Gospel that might distract our attention, the thing that Mark’s story is really about is how God has entered fully into the messiness of human existence.  Through Christ, God has called us from the darkness of the abyss to the light of the Kingdom.  In our baptism, we enter with Christ into the chaos of the waters of creation one final time before we are brought into the light of God’s love.

As you came up out of the water at your baptism, you might not have seen the heavens torn in two.  Maybe you didn’t hear God call you his beloved.  You probably didn’t see the Spirit descending upon you like a dove.  Yet, I believe that these things occur at every baptism.  Each time someone commits their life to the Kingdom of God over and above the chaos of this world, a party erupts, and all of heaven rejoices.  So, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, here’s the thing: You are God’s child, beloved, and with you God is well pleased.  Amen.

The chaos of baptism

The astute student of the Lectionary will note that the opening verse of Genesis 1 are appointed to go alongside Mark’s version of the Baptism of our Lord.  Being less astute this week than maybe some others, when I read the lessons yesterday morning, I scratched my head, thinking how odd a choice that was.  For the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of what the beginning of creation had to do with baptism.  Thankfully, I do not sermonate in a bubble, and as I read my go-to resources this morning, it all began to fall into place.  So, in case you are suffering from the dullness of a week away from the office, a late kick for the Sugar Bowl, and household pets going bonkers over the Super Moon, I offer you, dear reader, the connection I have made.

In her Lectionary column for the Christian Century, Kat Banakis, an Episcopal priest in Evanston, IL, turned my attention to a further ramification of the heavens being torn apart than I had seen yesterday.  “But by splitting the heavens,” she writes, “God is going back earlier, to the beginning when the earth was separated into day and night, form and void, heaven punching out into the firmament above and sea below, back to that originality – and laying claim to Jesus within that.  In the rite of baptism, the same elemental water touches us and initiates us into the tribe of people who believe in Jesus’ Messiahship.”  In the margins, I wrote “water as chaos.”

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All of a sudden it hit me.  Not a new insight, mind you, but an insight in a newly profound way, that our baptism, in the model of Jesus’ baptism, tie us all the way to that moment when God made chaos to be order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death exist.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, we are pulled out of the overwhelming nothingness of the world and brought into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where the is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into holiness, where God’s will bring all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we enter into that place where the heavens have been rent asunder. We are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.