God is here

One of the things that I love the most about being an Episcopalian is the rhythm of our liturgical life.  People often ask me how I don’t get bored doing the same thing day after day, week after week, but to be honest, I love the repetition.  Saying the Lord’s Prayer again and again is calming to me.  Hearing the familiar words of the Eucharistic Prayers makes me feel at home.  I can’t wait until the day we get to say them together again.  I am certain I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Over years and decades and the course of a lifetime, these ritual actions, repeated again and again, eventually write themselves in our minds and on our hearts – they become imprinted on our bones.

I learned this truth during my first summer of seminary.  One of my responsibilities during that summer of Clinical Pastoral Education was a rotation with the hospice program at a large tiered-care retirement facility.  My hospice patient was a woman who lived in the memory care wing.  The first time I went to visit her, I found her sitting on one of the couches, dressed to the nines, ready to welcome a guest into her home.  To her, the year wasn’t 2005, but 1945.  I wasn’t a chaplaincy student coming by to pray with her, but a gentlemen suitor there to take her out on a date.  We talked and laughed, and I enjoyed our time together.  As the summer went on, her condition deteriorated rapidly.  Eventually, my visits took place in her room, where she rested in a hospital bed.  As the end drew near, my colleague Peter and I took to praying and reading the Bible out loud to her.  I can still remember the moment, as I began to read the King James version of Psalm 23, when I saw her lips move.  I couldn’t hear anything, her voice was too weak, but I watched as she recited every word of the Psalm right alongside me.  She couldn’t remember her family, her own name, or even how to eat, but these ancient words of praise in the midst of anxiety and hardship were written down deep within her.

The 23rd Psalm seems to know when we need it.  It was the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaotic week that followed.  It has appeared in the Lectionary during particularly trying weeks in my personal faith journey.  It is always there at the time of death.  The 23rd Psalm shows up in moments of hope and joy as well.  It was the Psalm appointed for the feast day of Mother Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, a day we weren’t quite sure would happen in the midst of what she now calls “Not Cancer.”  The 23rd Psalm is versatile.  It is able to carry some heavy burdens, and I am particularly grateful that it was assigned for us to pray through today.

On this our second of what will be quite a few Sundays of “Church at Home,” after ten straight days of new guidance, new rules, and short-lived new normals, I needed the comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  As the news continues to remind us that no one is exempt from the “valley of the shadow of death,” I’m finding a new and deep appreciation for the “still waters.”  As the need to come up with answers to questions I never dreamed of asking has threatened to overwhelm me, I am comforted by the promise of God’s cup that overflows.

The most profound lesson that Psalm 23 has taught me this week came as I scrambled to find some words to say to you on Thursday afternoon.  Sitting next the water heater in my basement tool-room-slash-office, with the washing machine rumbling nearby, I pulled up my go-to preaching resources.  There, on WorkingPracher.org was a post on Psalm 23 that cited James Limberg, Old Testament Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary.  Professor Limberg noted that in the Hebrew version of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase translated as “thou art with me.”[1]  Smack dab in the middle of this Psalm of comfort, the poet embedded our deepest truth, God is here.  In the midst of anxiety, disruption, pain, and fear – God is there.  In the midst of joy, laughter, excitement, and ease – God is there. God is always in the very middle of it all.

We hear the same message in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  In the middle of the mess, God, in the person of Jesus, is there.  In the middle of a debate over whether someone’s infirmity was the result of sin, Jesus was there, not to settle the argument, but to show how misguided it was.  The man born blind’s problem wasn’t that he was blind.  His most immediate problem was the bigotry and toxic theology that kept people from reaching out to him in love.  So, Jesus stepped into the middle, got his hands literally dirty and figuratively unclean, and violated the laws of the Sabbath to heal the man.  When the debate shifted and the man, momentarily restored to community, was once more exiled from his family and Synagogue, Jesus showed up again, this time to welcome him into relationship with the Savior of the world.  No form of disconnection is beyond God’s capacity to show up and be present to us in our need.

In a Pastoral Directive issued on Friday, Bishop White called for the suspension of all in-person gatherings until further notice.  The Bishop went on to say that we should be prepared for this to be our reality through the end of May.  That’s a really long time to be apart from one another.  For those of us who aren’t tech savvy and can’t livestream a worship service, who can’t feel connected when they see the likes, hearts, and comments coming up in real time, the distance and isolation from your church family can feel overwhelming.  Even at home, surrounded by my own family, there have been moments this week when I have felt like the man born blind, all alone as the world swirls around me.  Thankfully, those moments haven’t lasted too long, and I’ve been able to remember, with regularity, that God is here, right smack dab in the middle of it all.

Isolation is hard, even if it is what we need in this moment, but isolation doesn’t mean you are all alone.  God is here.  God is right there in your living room, and in this moment, the Church has a unique opportunity to be there as well.  I believe that we are being called to take our role as the Body of Christ more seriously than ever, and to be right in the middle of the messiness.  Committed to fulfilling our mission in new and different ways, Christ Church will be present with you, even in our isolation.  The Staff and Vestry have divvied up a call list, and will be checking in with every member of the congregation weekly to make sure we stay connected.  We will continue to offer worship online for those who can connect, and we are developing ways for all of us to worship God, to learn and grow, and to radiate God’s love, even as we are stuck in our houses, especially during the Holy Week to come.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition means many of you have some go-to prayers already written on your hearts and in your bones.  You can connect with the ever-present God anywhere and anytime, but in this time of isolation, as the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christ Episcopal Church is with you.  The waters won’t always be still.  The pastures won’t always be green.  But the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Comforter, and Christ’s Church will continue to be with you this day and always.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4385

Don’t Fall for It

Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe.  Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it.  We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized.  While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now.  One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel.  In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished.  Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan.  [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”  In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician.  While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type.  He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”  A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

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Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history.  Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question.  The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for.  In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe.  These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.

Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham.  After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people.  Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them.  He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God.  He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.”  Life is the way of love.  Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah.  Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”

Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.

In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church.  In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ.  He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness.  It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes.  They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand.  They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.

Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads.  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here.  Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point.  As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.

History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good.  We are suckers for instant gratification.  Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification.  We’ve fallen for it.  The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without.  That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money.  We’ve fallen for it.  The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy.  We’ve fallen for it.  Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.

Jesus invites us to stand up.  Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.  So, what do you stand for?  Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days?  Choose life.  Choose the way of love.  Choose to stand with Christ.  Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol.  The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Amen.

Losing our Saltiness

Salt was way more important in the time of Jesus than it is today.  Thanks to refrigeration, we are not dependent on salt to preserve meat in order to not die from food-borne illnesses.  More so, the health community is quite aware that too much salt is detrimental to our health.  As one with high blood pressure, I can assure you, I’ve heard all about salts impacts.  Still, salt is ubiquitous on dining room tables in homes, restaurants, and cafeterias.  Salt is so commonly used that some countries mandated that iodine be added to it to prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Between 1990 and 2006, thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of the World Summit for Children, iodized salt usage increased from 25% to 66% of households, and the worlds IQ rose because of it.  The course has begun to reverse, however, as pink Himalayan salt has become the rage.  While some pink salt may contain trace amounts of iodine naturally, the general consensus seems to be that if you want to avoid an iodine deficiency, you should look for white salt.

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Long, probably unnecessary introduction aside, what’s really fascinating to me in the move toward pink salt is that it has been shown to have a statistically significant lower level of saltiness.  That is to say, if you are using pink salt to season a dish, you’ll need to use more of it to achieve the same flavor profile.  You with me?

When Jesus makes the somewhat absurd claim that salt can lose its taste, my mind was immediately taken to pink salt.  It is pretty.  It looks great in instagram photos of you dinner table.  It is suggested that it has all kinds of health benefits, but it lacks two very important things – depth of flavor and added iodine.  The lack of flavor is inherent in the makeup of pink salt.  The lack of iodine is a result of outside forces.  As I think about the life of faith and how disciples of Jesus might lose their saltiness, I would venture to stretch this metaphor a bit further.  Disciples who have lost their taste seem to be missing both internal and external components as well.  To lose our fundamental identity as the salt of the world often comes from a lack of community.  Iodine infusion for salty Christians comes by way of regular participation in worship, communal Bible study, and corporate acts of compassion.  When we remove ourselves from a community of faith, we lose part of what it means to be the salt of the earth.

Furthermore, when these external forces are removed, it becomes easier and easier to craft God in our own image.  Less and less focused on what it means to be a Christian for the world, we get so focused on what it means to be a Christian for ourselves that we begin to lose our connection with God through the indwelling of the Spirit.  Not having any kinds of checks and balances on our faith, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and, it seems fair to say, run the risk of coming nothing more than superficial Christians.  It might look good on the outside through an elaborate series of filters, but the true purpose of our saltiness is lost.

Like I said, salt isn’t as important today as it was in Jesus’ time, so you’ll have to forgive the shoehorning of this metaphor for nearly 600 words, but I do think there is something there for us to consider.  What may have seemed absurd 20 years ago – that salt could lose its most basic value – has come to fruition in the explosion of pink salt.  It might seems absurd that disciples of Jesus could lose their saltiness, but I don’t think so.  I think it is a real risk for all of us who claim to follow Jesus.  Staying connected to community and listening for the Holy Spirit in context is important to the ongoing development of the life of faith.

The Presentation

There are only a small handful of Feasts that take precedence over a regular Sunday celebration.  A couple of them – Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday – regularly fall on a Sunday.  One, Ascension Day, can never be a Sunday as forty days after Easter Day will always add up to Thursday.  All Saints’ Day can be celebrated twice, but it is only Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Name (January 1), the Presentation (February 2), and the Transfiguration (August 6), will bump a regularly scheduled Sunday.  This week, we have a rare double Feast as the secular festival of Super Bowl LIV happens to fall on the Sunday of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple – a name that just rolls off the tongue.

The Feast of the Presentation, while not often celebrated on the Lord’s Day is still a pretty popular story in the minds of many Episcopalians.  Anyone who grew up going to an Episcopal Church Camp could probably still recite the Song of Simeon from Compline by heart.  Simeon’s song sums up not only the hope of an old man who longed desperately for the redemption of Israel, but it strikes deep chords within all of us who are looking forward to and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is through the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people that we as Christians have come to know not just our salvation, but the redemption of the world.

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What gets less play, because her words were not recorded, is the prophet Anna who, Luke tells us was also waiting for the restoration of her beloved Jerusalem.  Upon seeing the babe, she too couldn’t help but express joy, praise God, and tell anyone who would listen what the birth of this particular child would mean for the whole world.

While the focus in the name of this Feast is the ritual act of presenting Jesus at the Temple for purification, what really stands out to me this morning is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, and their willingness to share the hope that was within them.  Too often in our worship, Episcopalians focus on the ritual acts, forgetting that the Eucharist is meant to nourish us spiritually that we might go forth to share the love of God and the Good News of salvation in Christ with everyone we meet.

The Mission of the Jesus Movement

Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to:

  • Worship God with joy and wonder;
  • Learn and Grow together; and
  • Radiate God’s love to all.

As I sat in the Trustees and Council retreat this weekend, some in the group wondered if our attempt to craft a Diocesan Why or mission statement was worth the effort.  “It’ll just get printed on letterhead and ignored like all the others,” one person worried aloud.  Here at Christ Church, we run the opposite risk, as Shelley Carter wrote in her Senior Warden’s Report.  Our mission statement, like any mission statement, is in danger of being heard so often that it loses all meaning.  I imagine that most of you just tune out the first 20 seconds or so of the announcements each Sunday because you already know what is going to be said.  If it isn’t lived out in our daily lives, if it doesn’t form the foundation of our planning, if it isn’t really at the heart of who we are, then whatever we might say we are about matters very little.  What really matters is how we live, or as Shelley put it, there has to be “evidence that we are awake and actively living our mission.”

We aren’t the first Christian group that has sought to live into a mission statement.  In fact, one could argue that every Christian mission statement is just some variation on the mission statements of Jesus.  There are several versions of it.  In one place Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Elsewhere, he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  At the Last Supper, he simply instructs the disciples that they should “love one another.”  In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear the earliest iteration of the Jesus Movement’s mission statement as he calls his first disciples.

After forty days of being tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus likely found himself on an extended stay in Jerusalem.  In order to carry the title, Rabbi, he would have had to study under a teacher, many of whom would have set up shop near the Temple.  Things grew tense between the Roman Government, the Temple Leaders, and reformers like Jesus and John the Baptist, until it all came to a head (pardon the pun) with the arrest of John for speaking out against Herod’s marital indiscretions.  Jesus knew that it wasn’t yet his time, so he took an 80-mile hike north to Capernaum where he honed his mission statement into one, seven-word Greek sentence, “metanoiete engidzon gar ha bassileia tone ouranon.”  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  “Turn your lives around, the reign of God is near.”

The first test of that mission statement comes almost immediately.  While walking down the beach, Jesus came across two brothers, who we presume he already knew.  Simon, the guy that Jesus renamed Peter in last week’s lesson, and Andrew a former disciple of John the Baptist who had returned to the family fishing business.  The time had come for their shared mission to begin in earnest, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” was all they needed to drop their nets and go.  Can you imagine their poor dad?  Andrew was finally back from his last adventure with a strange religious leader, and already he was off again.  Down the shore a bit, Jesus ran across two more brothers, James and John, who also quickly dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus on this mission to proclaim repentance and the Kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was now four-for-four in getting people to radically turn their lives around in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven.  He would not continue to bat 1.000, but in this story, we learn something about how it is that the Christian mission is lived out successfully – Christian mission has to be built on relationships.  While this story could be, and has often been, preached with the assumption that Jesus came across four random dudes and, in one sentence, convinced them to leave their families behind, I’m more apt to believe that Jesus, Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John already knew each other.  Most days, you could probably see them at the coffee shop arguing theology.  On the weekend, Jesus was on their boats, pulling in nets, and testing sermon ideas.  This moment, the in-earnest beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew’s Gospel, is built upon the foundation of deep relationships and love for one another.

Which brings me back to our mission statement here at Christ Church.  We have focused a lot of attention on the three missional foci – worship, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love, but I was reminded by our Gospel lesson this week that our mission statement, like the ministry of Jesus who we follow, is built on relationship.  We are, as I have said repeatedly for more than two years now, “a community of Christ’s servants.”  The extent to which we are successful in living out our ministry is dependent upon how well we work and play together.  Or, as the church growth people might say, how are we at building community?  As 2020 unfolds, I invite you to consider your role in the community of Christ Church.  Are you called to help us play more together?  Is your calling to bring us deeper in prayer?  Is your work to heighten our sense of God’s grace?  Are you supposed to help us be good stewards of our resources?  Is God simply inviting you to show up more often?  What is your role in building up the Body of Christ as it is lived out at Christ Church?  How is God inviting you to change your life in some way to build up the Kingdom of Heaven?  Where are you being called to work alongside your fellow servants of Christ for the glory of God?

You will, most likely, never be called to drop your nets, leave your family, and follow Jesus on a three-year journey through the Palestinian countryside, but there is no doubt that God has a mission statement for your life, a calling for you to live out, and gifts for you to utilize.  In our prayer for this day, we asked God to give us grace that we might readily answer that call so that together, we might share the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ: salvation that comes each time one of us, or all of us together, decides to wake up and actively amend our lives to work toward bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  Our mission remains resolute.  There is still plenty of work to be done both out there and inside these walls as we seek to build relationships with one another and with a world that desperately needs to hear of God’s unfailing grace.  I look forward to what 2020 will bring for this community of Christ’s servants called Christ Episcopal Church.  Amen.

Day of Midian?

I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m like hand sanitizer and 99.9% certain that no preacher wants to tackle Isaiah 9 on Christmas.  We’re so focused on the birth of the Messiah and the conflation of the Synoptic stories to worry at all about what boarders on a supercessionist shoe-horning of Isaiah’s oracle for Hezekiah’s reign into a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.  The odds are pretty good that one the congregation hears “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” on Christmas Eve, their imaginations are already in the shepherd’s fields waiting the heavenly chorus.  Knowing this, the RCL didn’t let us off the hook by simply hiding Isaiah 9 on the Feast of the Nativity.  Instead, it makes a triumphant reappearance here on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A.

While the common reading of this text as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah seems so easy and feels pretty good, I couldn’t help but get caught up on this image of the yoke of oppression being broken “as on the day of Midian.”  I’ve heard these words for 40 years, but have never given any real thought as to what that that reference was about.  Until today.  Today, for whatever reason, the day of Midian grabbed my attention.  Funny how scripture does that.

According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Isaiah was references a story recounted in the Book of Judges.  Before we get there, however, it behooves us to learn who Midian was.  The son of Abraham by Keturah, Midian and his brothers have a story similar to Ishmael.  As the children of a wife/concubine, Midian and his siblings were left very little when Abraham died.  His family was left to wander as nomads, left without a home.  Over time, the descendants of Midian grew in number and eventually became a great tribe, and when the Lord God needed to punish Israel for their worship of false gods, the Lord used the Midianites to oppress the people of Israel.   Judges 6-8 tells the story of the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s army’s conquest and Gideon’s almost instant return to idolatry.

It’s an odd reference, given that the relationship between God and Israel was only good for about half a minute, but when Isaiah uses this image of the rod of oppression being broken as on the day of Midian, it helps remind me that this salvation thing is ongoing work.  My salvation, as well as the salvation of the whole world, is being worked out day by day, as the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, deeper relationship, and the work of justice and peace.  The great light isn’t something we come to see in fullness in a moment, but is revealed to, epiphany after epiphany, through the course of our lives as disciples.

Praying Shapes Believing

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Praying Shapes Believing is one of the standard texts for anyone who is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  It has been for at least two decades, even if the Eucharistic Prayer chapter based on what is now thought to be some pretty outdated scholarship (that’s another post).  My own discernment process in Central Pennsylvania was pretty well based on the structure of this text, so its core concepts are engrained in me, and I am a firm believer that the things we pray for eventually become the things we believe and the things we believe shape the way we act.

Thus, I read with great excitement the Collect for Epiphany 3, which at Christ Church is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Would that we really wanted this prayer to be answered.  Would that all of us were ready, by God’s grace, to answer the call of Jesus to share the Good News of salvation with all people.  Would that we weren’t, and I’m not saying anything about “we” that I don’t also mean for “me,” weren’t so afraid of what others have done in the name of Jesus that sometimes, we hide our own faith under a bushel basket.

I’ve written extensively on the Episcopal Church’s discomfort with evangelism as anything more than doing good deeds.  I’d be happy to send you my doctoral thesis, if you need help falling asleep at night.  Alas, we’ve taken to heart this made up anachronistic supposed saying of Saint Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.” to the detriment of the Gospel and the lament of our churches.  As followers of Jesus, who experience the Gospel as a Way of Love rather than a way of fear, judgement, or condemnation, we should be the one’s out there, shouting from the rooftops the Good News of God in Christ.

We might not be there, yet, but thanks be to God for this prayer, which I hope will lead to belief in the importance of evangelism, which I hope will then lead us outside of these walls with the Good News of Christ Jesus in our hearts and on our lips.

A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.

The Lord Abides

The juxtaposition in literary grace between John’s prologue on the eternal Word (v. 1-14) and our introduction to the person of Jesus toward the tail end of John 1 couldn’t be more jarring if it tried.  From the loftiness of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14) we find John the Baptist not wild-eyed, beard matted with honey and locust legs, but rather stilted, awkward almost, as he tries to explain to his disciples who this “Lamb of God” is.  “I myself” is a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve never uttered myself 😉 and yet, John says it three times in four sentences.  It’s as if we replaced the poet of the first fourteen verses with a systematic theologian for the next twenty.  Anyway, what this really strange interaction between John and his disciples manages to do is a) introduce an adult, already baptized Jesus into the narrative, and b) pique the interest of the two disciples, Andrew and an unnamed disciple, so that they take on their Rabbi’s awkwardness and just start to follow Jesus.

Eventually, Jesus feels them on his heels, turns around, and asks a most appropriate question, “What are you looking for?”  Caught in their own weirdness (I can say this, as one of my spiritual gifts is awkwardness), one of them blurts out a random question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Despite the overall oddity of the language in this passage, John does seem to always be doing something with the narrative.  This question, strange as it may be, begins a short riff on the Greek word, meno, which is variously translated as “staying” and “remained.”  If we were going to stay stilted, I would have preferred the translators have used the word “abide” instead.

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I have my reasons for liking the word “abide”

This image of Jesus abiding is helpful to me as I think about what it is that Jesus was called to do during his active years of ministry.  Though he was always on the move and had no place to lay his head, part of what Jesus modeled for the generations of Christian leaders to come was an abiding spirit.  Even when the narrative seems clear that Jesus intended to quickly move from one place to another, we find many examples of Jesus being present to and abiding with an interruption.  His was a ministry of presence.  He abided with those whom the world passed quickly.  He spent time with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the oppressed.  He shared precious moments with those whom the world said weren’t worth anything.

The Book of Acts tells the story of the first generation of Christian leaders also abiding.  Paul abided, sometimes for years, in places to which he had been called.  Philip abided in Samaria and later in the chariot next to the Ethiopian Eunuch, neither places that a good Jew would spend much time.  James the Just abided in Jerusalem despite growing pressure to leave.  So too, as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are called to abide.  Whether we are clergy or lay leaders, part of what it means to follow in the model of Christ is to be present, to abide despite discomfort, and to see what God has planned next.  In John 1’s stilted language, we learn that the Lord abides, and we should too.

Rejecting our Createdness

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While it is in no way controversial to say that humanity is created in the image of God, there is plenty of room for debate on what that reality actually means.  Some would say that the imago Dei is our ability to reason, which up until recent scholarship, was thought to be what set us apart from other animals.  Some argue that we bear the image of God in our ability to imaginatively create new things, be they tools, art, or technology; a form of creation ex nihilo.  Still others would say that the image of God in each of us is the ruah, the breath, the Spirit of God at work in our lives.  In reading the Acts lesson appointed for Sunday, I began to wonder if part of what it means to carry the image of God is that we were created to be impartial, just as God is.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul argues that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry, not as the worship of money or power, but of self, by placing one’s self in the seat of God and acting as judge against our neighbor.  If God shows no partiality, which scripture affirms in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, then when we are partial to ourselves, to our what we assume to be normative, to lift up the sin of another while ignoring it in ourselves, to turn a blind eye to our our prejudices and biases against those who differ from us is in color, gender, sexual identity, religion, or mental or physical capacity.  All that run on Pauline stuff to say that every time we might choose to judge our neighbor is, in fact, rejecting our creation in the image of God.

Ultimately, this may be the sin of Adam and Eve that we carry within us to this day.  It isn’t sex or nakedness, as the Puritans who founded this country would have us believe, but rather, it is that we were not equipped with the proper lenses required to discern good from evil.  With the forbidden fruit consumed and passed on generation to generation, in coming to know the difference between good and evil, our understanding is inherently flawed.  We can’t see as God sees, and so what we see through our own lenses as good might very well be evil, and what we see as evil, might very well be good.  It is in the very act of making those determinations, of showing our partiality, that we fall into the sin of idolatry and reject the imago Dei within us.

In his sermon, Peter is clear, God shows no partiality, and that God is the only rightful judge of human beings.  It seems like it would behoove us as followers of Jesus, made in the image of God, if we reclaimed that understanding, to give up our bigotry, and to seek to do what is right in the eyes of the one who created us in their own image, God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.