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

Learning to see – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


After four months of being in transition, this week I decided to get back into the routine of life.  No more sleeping in until just before the kids wake up and rushing through the morning, the alarm now goes off at 5am, and thanks to our recent return to Daylight Saving Time, it is still very dark.  In those first moments of the morning, I struggle to stay awake.  It is so dark, the bed is so comfortable, and I really would prefer to just roll over, but at least for this week, I was able to stave off the snooze button.  The hardest part, however, isn’t the waking up, it is those first few seconds while my eyes adjust to whatever light source I introduce.  Usually, it is my iPhone.  After the alarm goes off, I check for overnight messages and then open up the Forward Movement website to read Morning Prayer.  Slowly my eyes adjust to the brightness of the screen.  At first, it is almost painful as my dilated pupils rapidly shrink.  Usually, by the time I have finished reading the Psalm, my eyes are fully adjusted, but it really does take a while.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the man born blind when he first opened his eyes.  After decades of darkness, never knowing the light of day, suddenly it all came flooding in.  How intense must that first moment of sight been for him?  How excruciating was it as his eyes adjusted to the light for the first time?  How long did it take before he could actually comprehend what he was seeing?  As much as this story is about the miracle of a man born blind being given the ability to see, it also serves as a metaphor for John.  This story is meant to teach us what it means to really see Jesus even as it assures us that it might take some time for the eyes of our heart to adjust.  For John, this story serves as an illustration of what it means to call Jesus the light of the world.  It took the man’s eyes some time to adjust to the newness of the light, and it would take his soul a while to come to see clearly in the light of Christ.  While he is learning to see, everyone around this man were found to be perfectly happy staying blind.

After the man is healed, the questions start, beginning with his neighbors, those who had passed him by for years, but never really saw him.  They had seen his cloak, spread out to receive loose change.  They had seen his rags, barely stitched together.  Some had seen his face and the vastness behind his eyes, but their reactions betray the fact that though they were perfectly capable of sight, they had never really seen him.  The man, on the other hand, continues his journey toward sight.  “Who did this to you?” They asked him.  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes… and I received my sight.”  In the initial stages of his spiritual seeing, the man only knows the name of the one who healed him, but as the story unfolds, his soul’s vision will increase.

His neighbors don’t buy his answer, and so they drag him off to the Synagogue where the Pharisees essentially put him on trial for heresy.  Again, he gives the details of his healing.  When pressed about the man called Jesus, the once blind man’s understanding deepens.  No longer able call Jesus simply a man, the eyes of his heart continued to open and he tells them, “He is a prophet.”  Not content to leave it alone, the Pharisees push things further.  They call his parents to testify that he was, in fact, the man born blind.  Afraid of what the Pharisees might do to them, and unwilling to comment on who this Jesus character might actually be, his parents make themselves blind to their own son’s healing.  “Ask him,” they say, “he is of age.”

Again, the man is brought back before the council, and again they ask him for the details of his healing.  How can the details of this story be true, they wonder, for Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, clearly he is a sinner and God doesn’t work through sinners.  So, who healed you, God or this sinner?  The man can clearly see that they are missing the point.  He wonders if maybe they secretly want to be disciples of Jesus.  He assures them that he has no idea how it all happened, but that this Jesus who healed him has to be of God.  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, the Pharisees have had enough.  Their eyes are scrunched closed so tightly that they may never see anything the right way again, and they throw this man out of the Synagogue.  Jesus, having heard about it, tracked him down, and the man born blind was able to see Jesus for the first time.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see and to understand fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.[1]  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man born blind was blessed in the experience.  His eyes were made open by Jesus, but more than that, his heart became open to God.

I am more and more convinced that learning to see with the eyes of our hearts is the basic work of discipleship.  In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and with it, the spiritual eyes needed to see God’s hand at work in the world.  Over time, by the grace of God, the pupils of our hearts slowly adjust to the light of Christ.  As our spiritual vision comes into focus, we see the hurting and the lost and we care for them.  We see the joyful and the blessed and we rejoice with them.  We see blessings poured out and we give thanks for them.  We see the work of the Kingdom and we join in it.  The process of learning to see the world through the eyes of our hearts is never ending, but with God’s help, every day, our spiritual eyesight can get a little bit better.  As our eyes adjust to the light of Christ, the progress might be slow, even painful at times, but in the end, our eyes will be open and we will be ready to worship Jesus, the light of the world, the Son of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=906

Coming into the light

My least favorite part about waking up in the morning is that moment of first light.  Usually, it is my iPhone, ready to offer me the Morning Office from Forward Movement, but sometimes it is the light in the kitchen to feed the dogs or the bathroom to… well that’s somewhat self-explanatory.  That first moment of light can be excruciating as my eyes adjust from full dilation during what has been the darkness of night and to the constriction of what will be the brightness of the day.  I can only imagine what that experience must have been like for the man born blind.  After decades of darkness, how intense was that first experience of light?

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As the story unfolds, John uses this ongoing metaphor of darkness and light to show us how the man’s spiritual pupils had to slowly adjust after his encounter with Jesus.  The adjustment doesn’t seem to happen quite as quickly as that first moment of actual light, but it seems the experience was just as painful as the man searches for meaning.

Immediately, the questions begin.  “Weren’t you the beggar we knew?  Who did this to you?”  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  The crowd near his home doesn’t buy it, and so they drag him off to the Pharisees for what amounts to a heresy trial.  He once again tells the story of the mud and the Pool of Siloam, and when pressed by the Pharisees, “What do you say about him?” the man’s understanding deepens.  He is no longer able to say that Jesus is just “the man called Jesus,” but now he sees him as “a prophet.”

The saga continues as now the man’s parents are brought before the council to give account of this miracle.  Unwilling to comment on who  Jesus might be, they turn the ball back over to their son saying, “ask him, he’s the one who was healed.”  So again, the Pharisees question the man.  He wonders aloud if they want to maybe be his disciples, affirms that he’s not sure how it all happened, but that the man who healed him had to be “from God.”  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, after the man is removed from the Synagogue, he is once again encountered by Jesus.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man is blessed in the experience.  His eyes are opened, but more than that, his heart is open to God and he becomes a disciple.  Would that our hearts might be made open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

On being blind

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Blindness is everywhere I look today (bad pun #1).  On Wednesday mornings, SBC’s preschool has an 8:30 chapel service.  The lesson for this morning was an excerpt of Sunday’s Gospel lesson about the man born blind.  To illustrate that story, the School Director told the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific poet and hymn writer who became blind at a very young age.  at age 8, Fanny wrote her first poems, which often focused on her condition.  She wrote,

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t! (1)

As I settled in to the office this morning after chapel, I opened today’s Lent Madness match up, which has, of all people, Fanny Crosby! going up against  George Frideric Handel, who was himself blind by the time of his death at age 74.  I’m still debating whether to file a complaint against SBC’s school for creating a bias in today’s Lent Madness voting.

After all of that, I’ve gone back and reread Sunday’s Gospel lesson with fresh eyes (pardon the pun in poor taste) and am noticing the obvious that blindness isn’t about the physical condition of the man who has his sight restored by Jesus, but rather is the ongoing condition of most everyone else in this story.  The blindness of the disciples opens the story.  Seemingly right in front of this man who is blind, and not deaf, they ask Jesus, “What’s with this guy?  Did he sin or his parents?”  It continues with his neighbors, who after his healing, though nothing about his physical appearance has changed, can’t seem to recognize this man who for years they had seen and known as “the man born blind.”  The Pharisees get in on the act, unable to see God’s hand at work in this healing because is happened on the Sabbath and didn’t follow their closely defined idea of how things were supposed to work.  Finally, the man’s own parents seem blind to the fact that in protecting their own hides, they have thrown their own son under the bus.

As the story ends, Jesus confronts the blindness of the Pharisees.  He calls them out for their unwillingness to see and their stubborn rejection of anything that falls outside of the tunnel vision religion they have carefully crafted for their own well being.  This ongoing blindness is the most dangerous, and one that can easily creep into our own faith communities.  It is so easy to see only what we want to.  We can pat ourselves on the back for being such a friendly congregation and never notice how radically unwelcoming that makes us.  We can fret the ongoing decline of membership numbers and not see how God is still using your congregation to deepen relationships, care for the downtrodden, and reach out to those in need.  Blindness goes both ways, we can miss the good and the ill in our midst, but the way of God is the way of sight.  God’s Son came as a light shining in the darkness.  Will we choose to see everything the light has to offer?  Or are we content with the perceived safety of the lingering darkness?

God has a plan

Let me preface what is to follow by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that God has a plan for creation.  Well, maybe more like a dream.  God’s dream for humanity and the earth we were created to care for is a wholeness.  We were designed to be in relationship, perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live.  Every part of God’s plan, which is declared good and perfect in Romans 12, is about fixing those relationships that we have screwed up, repeatedly and ad nauseam.

With that caveat in place, let me now suggest that what we will hear from Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a very dangerous statement.  The story unfolds with Jesus and his disciples happening upon a blind man.  We aren’t sure how they know that he has been blind since birth, but it helps the drama of the story that he was.  Anyway, the disciples, being good students of Judaism, are eager to engage their Rabbi in a theological discussion about his man.  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It may seem uncouth, but this line of questioning is perfectly valid in the context of 1st century Judaism.  In fact, those who would stick their head in the sand and say conversations like this don’t happen among 21st century Christians are just fooling themselves.  Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that God’s plan included the blindness of this man, and it is an answer with which I am exceedingly uncomfortable.

The NRSV renders it thusly: “Neither than man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’ works might be reveled in him.”  To my mind, this is the other side of the same coin as Pat Robertson saying Hurricane Katrina happened because of the gay agenda or the Haiti earthquake was the result of the Voodoo religion.  To suggest that God’s plan, that I would remind you is both good and perfect, includes such hardships as hurricanes, earthquakes and a child born blind is to forget the purpose behind God’s plan: the restoration of all relationships.  As is often the case, bad theology stems from bad translation.

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In this week’s WorkingPreacher Commentary, Osvaldo Vena, Profesor de Nuevo Testamento at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, suggests a more straightforward translations of verse three.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ”  The man’s blindness isn’t the result of God’s plan, but rather, it is God’s plan to heal him in this moment.  It wasn’t God’s plan to make this man blind so that God could later swoop in and look heroic, but rather Jesus says, it is God’s plan to overcome the broken relationships of this man’s life.  Of course, as the story plays out, it’ll take a lot more healing to fix all of his relationships.  After regaining his sight, he is ostracized by his neighbors, by the religious authorities, and even by his own parents, but with his newfound sight, the man is able to see a way to right relationship with God, which is the first step in right relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

This Sunday, let’s not perpetuate bad theology.  Let’s not suggest that God allows us to suffer, or worse yet, that God makes us suffer, so that God can fix things later.  Instead, let’s share the story of God’s saving grace, God’s perfect love for all of creation, and God’s plan to restore all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

Living in the Light

If I had my druthers, I’d take Paul’s advice to the Church in Ephesus and only read the first three verses of the prescribed lesson from the letter to that same Church.

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light– for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” [Full Stop]

After the roller-coaster of a week I’ve had, I’m content to just sit in the light and let God take care of the darkness.  Whether it is the controversy stirred up by World Vision changing their personnel policies to allow for the hiring of employees in same-sex marriages and then 48 hours later, amid outcry from evangelicals and fundraising by progressives, reversing that decision or the mentally unstable, elderly, homeless woman who joyfully got on a bus to Mobile, but whose schizophrenia kept her from taking the last 2 minutes of her 3 hour journey to a shelter, or SBC who has been on a three day sleep strike, there’s been a lot of darkness in my life this week, and I’m refusing to let it win.  I’m resting in the fact that God’s desire is that I focus on what is good and right and true.  I’m confident in John’s assertion that the light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness did not [will not, can not] overcome it.  I’m reminding myself that even if I seek out what is pleasing to the Lord, there are plenty of things that are out of my control that can upset my apple cart.

I’m living as a child of the light this week, despite the darkness, and I know that I’m not alone.  So, despite the fact that it isn’t allowed, I’d still probably consider forgoing Paul’s foray into the darkness in Ephesians this Sunday just so we could all bask in the light of God’s grace.

Theological Straw Men

Fred Phelps, Pat Robinson, Jeremiah Wright, Gene Robinson, Robert Duncan, Marcus Borg, John Spong, Steve Pankey.  All of these men have two things in common.  First, they have declared themselves as followers of the Jesus movement in some way, shape, or form.  Second, they have all been used by their detractors as nothing more than theological straw men, useful only such that they help to prove a point.  Truth be told, each of these men has also been guilty of using others in the same way.  In the post-Twitter world, where almost nothing happens that isn’t public within about 15 minutes and where snark and vitriol are used as currency, it is easy to think that this is a rather recent phenomenon, but the reality is that theological squabbles have utilized straw men from the very beginning.  Think of names like Galileo, Nestorius, Pelagius, and Pope Clement VII.

Even before the Church existed, and long before the Christological debates of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were theological debates that utilized straw men to prove one point or another.  A prime example comes in our Gospel lesson for Sunday where Jesus’ own disciples see a blind beggar on the side of the road and use him to start a debate.  As if he isn’t even there, or at the very least, as if he doesn’t have ears to hear and heart to feel, they ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  From there, he gets used by his neighbors, the crowd, the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, and to a certain extent, even his own parents, to wage a battle between Sabbath law abiding Jews and this Jesus character.

It is only Jesus who sees the Man Born Blind (MBB) as a human being.  He answers the disciples question, as he stoops down to make mud and heal the man.  When the MBB is ultimately expelled from the Synagogue, Jesus seeks him out and invites him into the Kingdom.  Of course, that’s what Jesus is all about, reminding us of our humanity in a world that would rather label and dismiss us.