[2 Corinthinas] five15

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Way back when, for several years, TKT and I did an evening service called five15.  It started, conveniently enough, at 5:15 pm, and was something of an experiential service.  We followed the form of An Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist from our Book of Common Prayer (p 400-407). In the course of “[Sharing] the Gifts of God,” we had various prayer stations around the themes of thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and petition.  It was a lot of fun to imagine different ways of engaging prayer with all five senses.  As we prepared for five15, I looked through every 5:15 in the Bible, to find taglines we might use in advertising, and 2 Corinthians 5:15 was one of our favorites.

And [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

We did not discover this verse.  It has long been a part of the Eucharistic canon, thanks to its placement in our Prayer D, which dates as far back as the mid-fourth century.  It has had its place in the Eucharist as a ongoing reminder of why we gather for worship at all.  The goal of the Christian life isn’t to have “your best life now,” or to achieve self-actualization, or to be protected from harm, or even to get to heaven when you die.  The telos of the Christian life is to live for Christ who died and was raised, for us.  As the New Living Translation puts it, “He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live to please themselves.  Instead, they will live to please Christ, who died and was raise for them.”

And how does one live “for Christ” or “to please Christ”?  Well, Jesus has summed that up elsewhere with the advice that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  That seems to be a good place to start.

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A Wal*Mart Theologian

One of the gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to attend continuing education events.  I’ve been to all sorts over the years, from emergent church events to Episcopal Church conferences to one United Methodist Conference sponsored gathering to a one-day social media bootcamp.  Even my four summers in the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee counts.  The broad spectrum of opportunities has helped me continue to grow in my ministry, but I’ve also started to notice some similarities.  Most, if not all, of these events end up in small group sessions.  Most, if not all, of these small group sessions require you to make an introduction.  I’ve introduced myself in a lot of different ways over the last decade, but perhaps my favorite is as a Wal*Mart Theologian.  That is, I am a firm believer that what I am preaching on Sunday morning has to also work in the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart. (1)

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This understanding of theology and preaching came back to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  This passage offers two fairly familiar parables from Jesus.  The first, maybe less commonly cited one, is about the sower who scatters seed, which grows, though he knows not how.  It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how it is constantly in motion, coming ever closer to our experience, even if we can’t always see it or feel it.  The second parable is of the mustard seed, which, though small, will grow to be a large bush that offers shade to the birds.  It too is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how seemingly insignificant acts of love and grace can make a profound impact on a world desperate for redemption.

The particular nuanced understanding of what Jesus is saying isn’t what took me to the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart, however.   Instead, it is Mark’s narrative reflection on the way Jesus taught that caught my attention.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…

Jesus shared the Kingdom of God with the crowds by way of commonly understood images.  He didn’t sit in the Synagogue and pontificate academically about a systematic theology of soteriology, but rather, he told the people stories, using the world they knew, to try to explain the unexplainable love of God.  Jesus was a first-century Wal*Mart Theologian, and by way of parables, which we often scratch our heads over, dig too deep to understand, and make super complicated, he taught the people of God’s saving love.

While you are working hard, dear reader, to prepare a sermon for Sunday on the content of these two parables, remember the example of our Lord and simply tell your people of God’s mercy, grace, and love in a language all can understand.


(1) Wal*Mart made me angry several years ago, so I rarely shop there anymore.  I guess I’m a Kroger Theologian now, but regional grocery store brands don’t carry the same weight.

Crazy Enough to Hope – a sermon

It feels really good to be back in Mark’s Gospel.  After spending Easter season in John, I’m glad to be settling back into Mark.  Reading John reminds me of the rides my parents would make us take on Sunday afternoons.  We would load into the family sedan and drive out into the country, not really going anywhere, in search of I don’t know what.  Depending on which direction we were headed, either my sister or I would spend most of the time complaining about the sun baking us in the back seat, while we argued over what color the sky was.  Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, is more like my trip back from the Gulf Coast of Alabama yesterday.  We pointed the car north and, with only a few traffic slowdowns and the Clanton, Alabama Whataburger trying to feed 5,000, we headed home just as fast as we could.

Mark’s Gospel moves very quickly.  You’ll recall that the author’s favorite word is “immediately.”  We hear it more than forty times, as Jesus immediately moves from this thing to that thing and on to the next thing.  In this morning’s lesson, we find ourselves only in the third chapter, and yet so much has already happened.  Jesus has been baptized by John, tempted in the wilderness, and called his first disciples from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  He’s healed Simon Peter’s mother, cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and that’s only in chapter one.  By chapter two, Jesus has already gotten under the skin of the religious powers that be.  His disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees think they should.  Worse yet, they plucked a few heads of grain on the sabbath.  Clearly this man was not from God.

After what must have felt like a whirlwind couple of weeks, Jesus and his disciples returned to his hometown, presumably for a bit of rest and refreshment.  Instead, as our Gospel lesson opens this morning, we hear that the crowds that surrounded him were so thick and so desperate to hear his preaching and receive his healing that Jesus couldn’t even get a bite to eat.  His family feared for his life.  They had heard what the religious authorities were saying about him.  They could see the rabid crowd surrounding him.  They knew what he was saying and doing.  Despite the NRSV’s translation that says, “people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind,’” the Greek really seems to say that the people who thought he had gone mad weren’t strangers in the crowd, but his very own family.[1]  Having seen with their own eyes what was happening around Jesus, it was his mother Mary, his brother James, and his other siblings who were concerned that he had lost his mind.  They were fully convinced that he had gone crazy, and the only way to save him from himself, was to try to get him back under control.

Six years ago, next month, I was in Indianapolis with more than a thousand other Episcopalians worshipping in a convention center ballroom.  It was the third day of General Convention, and the then Bishop of North Carolina, Michael Curry, was preaching.  In a sermon that was later expanded into a book, Bishop Curry invited us to ponder the response of Jesus’ family to his ministry.  He asked us to look at the lives of the saints of the Church, focusing especially on the first Apostle, Mary Magdalene, and abolitionist and author, Harriett Beecher Stowe.  Bishop Curry called on us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Mary, and Harriett by becoming Crazy Christians.[2]  It has been six years since that sermon.  Michael Curry is now our Presiding Bishop, leading the church out into the world to be Crazy Christians.  He was elected for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to preach the truth of God’s love to the masses, but what struck me in the profile for the Presiding Bishop candidates was his desire to serve the Episcopal Church as CEO, Chief Evangelism Officer.  Not only does Michael Curry ask us to live as Crazy Christians, but he expects us to invite others to join in the fun.

The Good News of Jesus Christ that each of us are called to proclaim seems crazy to a world that is in love with power, privilege, and violence.  Jesus’ family thought he was crazy because he was challenging the status quo.  The status quo, whom Mark collectively calls the Scribes, went a step further, claiming that he was possessed by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, precisely because he was a direct threat to their power, privilege, and comfort.  Jesus, however, knew that the only thing that was truly evil in this world was an inability to see God’s hand at work.  Jesus was, and is, seen a crazy because he showed the world what it looks like to have hope in the face of hopelessness.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he believed that love was stronger than hate, that peace was stronger than violence, and that God’s grace was sufficient for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy because he lived his life to show us that the power of God’s love could keep the plundering power of evil at bay.

The promise of God’s loving grace frees us to be Crazy Christians.  It frees us to claim that hope is stronger than despair, that love is stronger than hate, and that God’s grace is open to everyone.  In that same sermon, Bishop Curry called on the Episcopal Church, gathered in General Convention, to embrace the craziness of Jesus.  “We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord,” he admonished the fairly staid congregation, “Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God — like Jesus.  Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it.”[3]

Here at Christ Church, we call that crazy way of living “radiating God’s love to all.”  We show the world God’s crazy love through our Wednesday Community Lunch, by opening our doors to the homeless, by helping our neighbors keep their lights on, and by bringing fresh water hours into the Amazon River delta.  We live out the crazy love of God when we care for the sick among us, when the grace we share at this table goes forth to be a blessing to others, and we engage our children, youth, and young adults.  We empower the craziness of God’s grace when we take the time to support these ministries and so many others, by giving generously so that our collective ministry can continue to flourish, and by sharing our gifts and talents for the building up of the church and the restoration of the world.  We share the craziness of God’s love when we tell the story of how Jesus has changed our own lives.

To the world, it makes a whole lot more sense to sleep in on Sunday mornings, to have whatever you give financially back in your monthly budget, and to not worry about the problems that exist outside your front door.  Many see all that we do as nothing more than a crazy pipe dream, but that puts us in good company.  Jesus was, and is, seen as crazy, and as his disciples, we too are called to be crazy: crazy enough to believe that God loves sinners, just like you and me, and that by God’s grace, we can change the world.  May God bless us with a willingness to be crazy enough to live in hope and love.  Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/general-convention-july-7-sermon-bishop-michael-curry

[3] Better to hear it than to read it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abJMKeyCWoQ

On Being Sent

Can I be honest for a second?  Trinity Sunday is a disaster.  It serves no greater purpose than to make life hard on the preacher, and to produce an annual threat of heresy to our congregations.  Every year, I throw up my hands and ask the Irish twins to take me away.

The Scriptures appointed for Trinity Sunday, especially the three Gospel lessons, do nothing to help.  References to the Trinity are either obviously later additions (see Matthew 28) or are clearly early and undeveloped Trinitarian references.  Above it all, they begat bad preaching.

For example, I suspect someone, somewhere in the world is going to use John 3:1-17 to preach on the errors of the filioque (literally, “and the Son”), by noting that in this text the Son is sent, while the Spirit is clearly pre-existent, which, while accurate, will do little to edify or inspire.  One could, without being obnoxious, riff on the larger idea of being sent.

There is, thankfully, a growing understanding of Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles.  The first to witness the resurrected Jesus, it is Mary who is given the task of sharing the Good News with the eleven remaining disciples.  It is Mary who is sent by Jesus, or, in the Greek, apostolos.  That verb makes an appearance in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, in the more important verse than John 3:16.  John 3:17 notes that the Son is sent (apostolos) by the Father for the salvation of the world.  Later, after the resurrection, Jesus send (apostolos) ten of the remaining eleven disciples out into the world, just as he had been sent by the Father.  To empower them for that work, Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit upon them.

It is God: Father,  Son, and Holy Spirit who sends us into the world, empowered to spread the Good News of Salvation.  Without one part of the Godhead, our mission is diminished.  So, rather than bother with the messiness of the perichoretic dance, maybe this Trinity Sunday is a chance to remind our folks that we are empowered by the same Spirit that sustained the Son in the salvation of the world.

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Don’t try so hard, Patrick!

 

The Song of Three Young Men

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One can quibble with the contents of the Veggie Tales video series.  The theology is, at best, moral therapeutic deism.  The worldview is fairly closed minded.  It might occasionally border on supercessionism.  This is all true, but is also true that some of the songs are downright catchy and that some of the dialogue can be pretty funny.  I don’t make a habit of watching Veggie Tales, but over the years, I’ve seen several episodes, and even own the Jonah movie.  For all of the good and bad, one episode in particular holds a special place in my heart.  “Rack, Shack, and Benny” tells the story of three friends of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is perhaps most famous for the “Bunny Song.”  I won’t get that stuck in your head, but I will suggest that another apocryphal song does.

In several Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible, in between Daniel 3:23 and Daniel 3:24, has been inserted a long passage that includes a song, purported to have been sung by Rack, Shack, and Benny.  It is called “The Song of the Three Jews” or, as the Book of Common Prayer calls it, “The Song of Three Young Men.”  On Trinity Sunday, a portion of that song, Benedictus es, Domine, is an optional responsory text.  John Rutter, the king of modern Anglican music, whose catalog made an appearance at both the Royal Wedding and my daughter’s dance recital on Sunday, set it to music, which can be found at S236 in the Hymnal 1982, and should be sung in every Episcopal congregation this week.

The canticle is appropriate for Trinity Sunday because it makes a passing reference to the Trinity (though that’s really just an appended doxology), but what makes me so bold as to suggest it should be sung everywhere this week is the clarity with which it handles the glory of God.  Trinity Sunday reminds us, preachers especially, that God is totally beyond our comprehension.  God is the creator of all things, the redeemer of our sinful lot, and the one who lifts us toward sanctification.  God is present in all things everywhere.  God’s throne is so large that earth is its footstool and yet God is so present as to be a still, small voice.  Because of how great God is, when we try to explain God with certainty, we fall into trouble, and so, the Benedictus es, Domine, helps to remind me that when words fail, praise can take over.

Trinity Sunday shouldn’t be about explaining the triune nature of the Godhead.  Instead, the telos of Trinity Sunday should be awe, wonder, and praise.  To my mind, there is no better form of praise than the note found at the 1:14-5 mark of the video above.  This week, dear reader, don’t get lost in the details of the Trinity, but rather, rejoice and praise.

Sue, John, and the Love of God

Every wedding is a special occasion.  We know this because of several reasons.  People tend to dress up for weddings.  In a world where business casual now includes denim, people dressing up is kind of a big deal.  Not that you can tell it, but even I wore a suit today, which is a rare feat.  People buy gifts for weddings.  John and Sue have specifically asked us not to bring gifts, but I’m sure a few of you out there picked up a little something for the happy couple.  People give up a portion of their weekend to come to a wedding.  “Time is money,” the old saying goes, and even on what was a dreary Saturday, giving up a portion of your free-time must mean that these two people are special to you.  Every wedding is a special occasion, but in all the weddings I’ve done over the past decade of ordained ministry, this one seems to be a little bit extra special.  I know that this event is extra simply by the sheer number of people, both within Christ Church and in the wider Bowling Green community, who have shared with me their excitement and joy for these two people.  Sue and John are beloved, and today, we gather to share in the joy of their coming together in Christian Marriage.

I am also keenly aware that this event is extra special because I’ve been a nervous wreck about preaching today.  I joked earlier this week that I thought I was more nervous about preaching the Parker-Wilson wedding than the Presiding Bishop was to preach the Royal Wedding earlier today.  As I read through the lessons, looked through the service, and prayed for Sue and John this week, I became more and more aware of the specialness of this and every wedding ceremony.  The marriage rite is unlike anything else we do in the church.  Neither Mother Becca nor I are really the officiants today, but rather, it is John and Sue who do the sacramental work. Their coming together in marriage, seeking after mutual joy and affection and grounded in love, is an outward and visible sign of God’s never-failing love for every one of us and for the world that God has created.

In just a few minutes, we will pray for John and Sue.  We will ask God to give them wisdom, but they have plenty of that already.  We will ask God to help them grow in love, but their lives have long since been dedicated to the cause of love.  We will ask God to help them reconcile and forgive when the inevitable disappointments and failures come their way, but they already know forgiveness to be the hallmark of a strong marriage.  Most importantly, it seems to me, is that we will pray that their marriage will be a sign of Christ love to this sinful and broken world.

In his sermon for that other wedding that took place this morning, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, noted that “There [is] power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”  Today, we gather to celebrate the power of love.  Love that has guided these two in their lives all along.  Love that has been shown in their families.  Love that has been shared with thousands of students.  Love that has been deeply known by their many friends.  And love, which in John and Sue, I see lived out every day, shown to the world by way of loving service, compassion, and care.

Every one of us knows John Parker and Sue Wilson to be living, breathing examples of God’s love as individuals.  What makes today so special is that from here on out, those individuals will become one flesh, and in so doing, will offer us a new way to see God’s love at work in the world.  Today, they bring with them all that has come before.  They bring two long and loving marriages, two dedicated families, years of life as widow and widower, serving the world and the church.  All of those pieces come together in this day, and from here on out, their love for each other will serve a sign and symbol of the way in which God’s love can overcome all things: bears all things, hopes all things.  We all know how special this day is.  That’s why you are here.  And so, this afternoon, we give thanks for the love that Sue and John have known in God: love given to one another, to all of us, and to the world God has created.  May the Lord bless us all this day with a deep and abiding sense of the true love that endures.  Amen.

The work of discernment – a sermon

Easter Seven is a weird, in-between, sort of time.  Long gone are the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.  We’ve run through a few Sunday’s worth of Jesus teaching his disciples while seemingly trying to use the word “abide” as many times as possible.  In our Gospel lesson, every Easter Seven, we hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples during the Last Supper.  Somehow, we’ve circled all the way back around to that upper room on Maundy Thursday.  I guess it makes sense.  This is day three of the awkward in-between time.  On Thursday, forty days after he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city walls, commanded them to not leave Jerusalem until the Spirit came, and then ascended into heaven before their eyes.  As they stood there, staring into the sky, two men, dressed in white, appeared and sent the disciples back to the upper room to pray and wait.

Our Acts lesson tells the story of that prayerful waiting.  For ten days, 120 of Jesus’ closest disciples, both male and female, spent their time intentionally praying for the Spirit and the future of the Way.  In the course of that time of prayer, Peter realized that the number eleven just wouldn’t do.  There were many disciples, but Jesus had set aside twelve as apostles, those who were explicitly sent to go and preach and teach and heal.  One of the twelve had failed to live into that calling.  We all know the story of Judas.  He betrayed Jesus and succumb to his own guilt.  His choices left a void in the group.  Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel.  For a group of Jewish disciples seeking to restore the wholeness of God’s mercy in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth, twelve was a nice, clean number.  Eleven wasn’t so nice a number, and so they put their heads together, still in prayer, and discerned two qualified candidates to replace Judas.  Two men who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John in the Jordan, a higher standard than most of the others could muster.  Two men who could share the responsibility of being “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In the end, the decision came down to the three-named Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus and Matthias.  They cast lots, an ancient custom for discerning the will of God, and it fell, conveniently, on the guy with one only name.  Matthias would be number twelve.  He would take his place among the inner circle.  He would be looked at as a leader in the community.  And, with that, just like his co-candidate, Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus, we never hear Matthias’ name again.  In fact, the only thing that the church seems to have held onto from this story is a New Testament scriptural warrant for casting lots.

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I know that the drawing names versus election conversation has a long history here at Christ Church.  I am aware that there were serious pastoral considerations at the time the move away from elections was made, and that there is still some anxiety about the move back to elections.  I’m certain that the age-old adage, “if you reach for the canons to win a debate, you’ve already lost” is absolutely true.  I’m also very familiar with how hard it can be to put yourself out there for an election.  Yet even with all of this, I’m apt to agree with my friend Evan Garner who suggested earlier this week that, ultimately, what method we use to choose leaders in the church doesn’t matter, so long as we’ve done our prayer homework, and that maybe faithful elections are just another way of casting lots, if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide.[1]

Despite the scriptural tradition of Acts 1, it didn’t take the early church long to determine that the ancient practice of casting lots wasn’t the only way to make decisions.  History shows that by the third century, election was the preferred method for choosing bishops in the church.  Saint Cyprian, who died in 258, believed that it was through the election process that the Holy Spirit worked to keep unworthy candidates from rising to episcopal office.  In the Church of England, from the very beginning of the modern Vestry in 1598, those have been elected positions.[2]  In the United States, the Episcopal Church, whose governance structure was built by some of the same people who were building the civil government, democratic elections at every level of the church have been the norm since the Revolution.

We have elections to thank for our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry and for our Bishop, Terry White.  Even my coming to Christ Church wasn’t the result of casting lots or drawing names, but the intentional process of discernment that ultimately led to a vote.  Not that any of these wonderful things might not have happened if names were drawn from a hat, but I’m not sure that the final way we choose a name is what matters, instead it is about the process of prayer that leads up to it.

The first time I stood for election was for my high school Senior Class President.  I ran an elaborately childish campaign based on popular culture.  At the time, Saturday Night Live had a recurring bit called “deep thoughts by Jack Handy,” and so I created posters based on some of those pithy quotes.  The one I can remember most clearly read, “Sometimes I wish Steve Pankey was dead.  Oh wait, not dead, Senior Class President.”  They were kind of funny, and they got me a lot of attention, but I still lost the election.  It hurt to lose, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.  And twenty years later, I’m sure glad I don’t have to plan a reunion from seven hundred miles away.

A high school class election might not be the best example, but I can look back on the lessons I learned in every election and be grateful.  Thankfully, over the years, I’ve won more elections than I’ve lost, and each time, I know that I’ve grown a bit.  This is especially true in the elections I’ve been a part of in the church.  As I’ve considered whether to allow my name to be entered into nomination, I’ve had to do some intentional discernment work.  Am I gifted in the areas that are required?  Do I have the time and energy to commit to this work?  Is God calling me to give up something else in order to fill this role?  Are there people with whom I need to work to make this election, win or lose, something that can be upbuilding for the church?

In that upper room, during the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a lot of active discernment happening.  The disciples were praying for wisdom while listening for God’s plan for the future of the fledgling church.  They were, no doubt, asking questions about who would lead them, who would be called to serve, and how the physical needs of the community might be met.  As they prayed and listened, some clarity came.  Before anything else, they needed a twelfth person to be called Apostle.  With that, their prayer become focused around who might be called, and they discerned that it was Matthias.  Truth be told, the church probably would have been just fine had Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus’ lot been the winner because, in the end, it isn’t about who or how the person is ultimately selected, but about the work of prayer and discernment that goes into it.

We’re a long way out from electing another set of vestry members, but I think a lesson we can take away from the Acts reading is that we shouldn’t wait until the week before the annual meeting to begin the process of discernment.  Instead, we are called to constantly be in discernment for ourselves and our church, listening for God’s call to serve in all kinds of ways, from Sunday School teacher or Wednesday lunch volunteer to welcoming guests on Sunday morning or serving on the Vestry.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for your vestry and our ministry leaders.  Pray for the Church.  In doing this work of discernment, we can be certain that, by the time the next annual meeting comes around, every candidate is qualified, and that win, lose, or draw, the leadership of Christ Church Bowling Green rests securely in hands of God.  Amen.

[1] http://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2018/05/deciding-by-lots.html

[2] Prichard, Robert, History of the Episcopal Church, 9.