Supersaturated life

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You may remember from high school science class that a supersaturated solution is one in which more of something is dissolved in a liquid than could be under normal conditions.  The solution sits in supersaturation unless and until something acts upon it to force the excess to precipitate out, or, more spectacularly shown in the gif above, crystallization occurs.  If you have ever enjoyed a piece of rock candy, you have experienced a crystallized supersaturated solution.  In two of our lessons on Sunday, we learn that the Kingdom of God is something like that.

Psalm 23, everybody’s second favorite Olde English thing (next to a good Thug Life tattoo) is often remembered for the “valley of the shadow of death” in verse 4, but I love Psalm 23 because of verse 5.  The Book of Common Prayer translation reads thusly,

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

God’s grace supersaturates our lives such that feasts can be enjoyed right in the midst of our enemies.  Our heads, like those of kings, are anointed with oil.  Our cup runneth over.  The Hebrew word there is literally translated as “saturated.”  Its root word carries connotations of abundance, soaking wet, and drunkenness.  The cup that God has prepared for us, even in the valley of death, right in the sight of our detractors, remains abundantly full.  In God, even in the midst of hardship, our blessings are supersaturated.

Our Gospel lesson from John 10 suggests something similar.  Jesus, you’ll recall, is standing in the presence of his enemies when he tells the man born blind, the Pharisees, and anyone who would here, that he has come into the world so that we might have abundant life.  The Greek here suggests excessiveness, superabundance, and even superfluousness.  God’s grace acts as a supersaturated solution in our lives.  When acted upon by outside forces, it sometimes precipitates out so that in the midst of hardship we can see it, taste it, and feel it.  Sometimes, the pressure to lose sight of it is so great that it might have to crystallize in spectacular fashion.  I think maybe that’s what miracles are all about.

This Sunday, we will hear about the overflowing love of God.  We’ll be reminded that even in the hard times, God’s grace does not shy away.  Once again, we will bring to mind the gift of abundant life that God offers each of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even as we give up on resurrection accounts, we will hear of the power of Easter,  the abundant resurrected life that God desires to pour out on all of humanity.

Sermon: Have you heard the Good News?

After some website delays, you can now listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read along here.


Do you remember the first time you heard the Good News that God loves you?  Having basically grown up in the church, I can’t identify the precise moment when I first heard those words, but I do have early memories.  I remember one Vacation Bible School: the theme was some sort of undersea adventure, and inside a giant blown up plastic tube that was painted to look like the ocean, we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  I remember another VBS, sitting the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church singing, “If I were a butterfly,” and thanking God for “making me me.”  I remember Sunday school classes and sermons and confirmation classes that all, in their own way, showed me the love of God.  I also remember those stories, sermons, and lessons that reminded me of God’s judgment as well.  I remember the story of Adam and Eve: how they had eaten of the tree of good and evil and were punished.  I remember hearing the story of Noah: how God had become so disappointed with the world that God decided to start over by flooding it, killing nearly every living thing.  Some of those stories are difficult for us adults to understand, let alone children, but they, like the numerous stories of God’s love, are important for us to hear.  The fullness of God’s story is a story of God’s hope for a full and perfect relationship with humankind, our ongoing ability to screw that up spectacularly, the repercussions of broken relationship, and God’s loving work to restore the hope of a full and perfect relationship.

It is right in the middle of that ongoing pattern that we find ourselves in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this Third Sunday of Easter.  Each Easter season, instead of reading from the Hebrew Bible, we read selections from Acts.  In Year A, we spend three weeks on Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  Last week, it was a pretty in-depth exegetical study of the prophet Joel.  This week we hear a summation of Peter’s sermon and the crux of salvation history.  Because of God’s passionate desire for right relationship, God the Father sent God the Son in the person of Jesus.  Although humanity killed Jesus, God raised him to his rightful place as Lord and Messiah.  Peter preached this sermon to a fairly significant crowd.  It was the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the Passover during which they remember the gift of the Law and offer God the first fruits of the grain harvest.  Jerusalem was teeming with spiritual tourists.  Jews from around the known world were gathered to offer their first fruits in hopes of a successful harvest when the city was brought into confusion by a loud noise like a rushing wind, and a cacophony of voices, each speaking in a different language.  Every visitor for blocks heard the Good News of God’s mighty acts in their own native tongue.  Thousands packed in tightly around the disciples’ house to see what was happening.

There, amidst an increasingly raucous crowd, Peter shared the Good News of God’s love.  They were cut to the heart by his message.  They had never heard such preaching.  Sure, like many generations before them, the crowd gathered had hoped for the Messiah.  They had prayed that God would restore the fortunes of Zion.  They longed to find right relationship with God, but few of them really expected anything to change.  Yet here, on this Pentecost Day, something was different.  This word from Peter was like a word straight from God’s own lips.  This word was both judgment and love.  It cut them to the very core, and they pleaded with Peter and the rest, “Brothers, what should we do?”

As it turns out, the proper response to God’s love is actually quite simple: “repent and be baptized.”  Repent is a ten-cent church word that has lost much of its meaning over time.  After years of only hearing it from television preachers and street corner evangelists, repentance has come to mean something like “feeling guilty because you’re a wretched mess of a sinner,” but that isn’t exactly what Peter meant when he told the crowd to metanoio.  The first step toward right relationship with God is to change your mind, to change your direction, to change your focus, and ultimately, to change your actions.  That’s what repentance is all about.  It has very little to do with feeling guilty or sad, and everything to do with turning away from the old life of sin and turning toward life eternal in right relationship with God.  You can feel sorry for doing something, and go right on doing it.  What God desires is a transformed life.  “After that,” Peter says, “then you should be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins can be washed away and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s it.  Repent and be baptized.  Eventually, this two fold action of repentance and baptism was made symbolic in the baptismal liturgy itself.  Immediately before being immersed, the new Christians would face west, the direction of the sunset and gathering darkness, and be asked three times to renounce Satan and the forces of evil.  They would then turn to face east, the direction of the sun rise and the return of the light of the world, and three times would proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ.  To this day, the liturgy for Holy Baptism mirrors that ancient rite, which makes today is a perfect day for a baptism.

Our newest Christian is Christopher James Chaffin [who will be baptized at 10 o’clock this morning]. He isn’t even two months old yet, but I’d be willing to bet that he has already heard the Good News that God loves him more times than we can count.  He’s experienced the love of God through the care of his parents, Justin and Jamie, and his siblings Meredith and Benjamin, his extended family, and the people of Christ Church.  In a few minutes, [it’ll happen at the later service, but you still have a part in this] we will join with his parents and Godparents in promising that we will do all in our power to support Christopher in his life in Christ.  We, the people of Christ Church, on behalf of all Christians, will promise to make sure Christopher knows that God loves him both in word and action.

There isn’t much that a less than two-month old baby gets to decide on his own.  His days are basically made up of automatic bodily functions and being carried from one place to another.  He is not in need of repentance… yet.  Likewise, there isn’t much sin that needs to be washed away from Christopher… yet.  But it will come.  When Christopher does begin trying to walk in his own path, it’ll be his family: nuclear, extended, and church that will be here to remind him of the right pathway to God.

What will come true today is the final promise of Peter to the crowd gathered to hear that Pentecost sermon.  Christopher James Chaffin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit this morning.  The Spirit will work alongside the rest of us to remind him of God’s unending love.  The Spirit will convict him when he begins to stray the wrong way.  The Spirit will help him to repent by making right choices and walking toward God’s love.  And the Spirit will do the work of fulfilling our prayer for Christopher this day, that he might be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

Some of us are blessed to remember the first time we heard the Good News that God loves us, but for many of us, that news has been a part of our lives since before we ever existed.  Christopher Chaffin is blessed in knowing God’s love every day of his life, and we are blessed to be a part of sharing that love with him.  He won’t always do the right thing.  God’s redemption story will be just as true for him as it is for me and you, but in the end, the only truth that really matters is that God loves him, God loves you, and God wants to be in perfect relationship with all of us.  So, repent, remember your baptism, receive the forgiveness of sins, and lean into the gift of the Spirit for discernment, courage, love, joy, and wonder.  Amen.

When Jesus gets blunt

This Sunday, as is the case every Fourth Sunday of Easter, Episcopalians the world over will celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  We will hear the 23rd Psalm for the second time in as many months.  Our collect will refer directly to the 11th verse of John chapter 10, and then our lesson will stop short of it at verse 10.  My friend Evan Garner, whom I’ve been remiss to link to of late, deals nicely with the difficulty preachers will have trying balance the niceties of Good Shepherd Sunday with the ongoing series of Jesus’ mixed metaphors on Good Sheepgate Sunday.  What I’m focused on today is the disconnect between Jesus as the Good Shepherd

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and Jesus as the hard-edged preacher that we hear in the first part of John 10 appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday in Year A.

Some context is helpful.  John 10 opens just after the healing of the man born blind and the ensuing confrontation with the leaders of the Synagogue.  Jesus healed the man with mud and spit on the Sabbath day, which was against the law.  The religious leaders took this violation out on the man whom Jesus had healed.  Jesus, reasonably, took offense to that and called them to the carpet.

John 9:35-41  35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 

Our lesson opens immediately after that scene.  It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus is still speaking to the Pharisees as he says “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”  These are harsh words from Jesus: a blunt description of what he believes is happening in the Second Temple Jewish system.  The religious powers-that-be were so in bed with Rome, so focused on rules, and so eager to line their pockets with taxes and sacrifices that they were, in Jesus’ opinion, nothing more than thieves.  Worse than that, he calls them robbers, bandits, and insurrectionists, depending on how you would like to translate the Greek.  It is the same root used to describe Barabbas, the man who gets released on the Passover instead of Jesus.  The same word Mark and Matthew use to describe the men crucified on either side of Jesus.  This is not a term used for a common criminal, but for the violent, the depraved, and the treasonous.

We aren’t used to hearing Jesus be this blunt.  The way the Lectionary breaks this text up, it seems more palatable that Jesus is speaking into the ether, but he’s not.  Jesus is addressing a specific group of people, the religious elite, and calling them violent criminals.  Especially on Good Shepherd Sunday, what do we do with this knowledge?  How do we react when Jesus gets blunt?  Where’s cuddly Jesus with the fluffy sheep when we need him?

In remembrance of me

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There are a lot of ways to understand what is happening in the Eucharist.  Transubstantiation, Transignification, Real Presence, Memorialism, Receptionism, and the list goes on.  This theological murkiness has occurred, in part, because Jesus wasn’t all that specific in what he meant when he said, “this is my body,” “this is my blood,” and “do this in remembrance of me.”  Depending on one’s tradition, one or more of these phrases (or even the words within them) can be given undue influence.

In our Gospel lesson for Sunday, as well as the Collect for Easter 3, we are put to mind that, for Luke, the common meal of Christians, commonly called the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and the Great Thanksgiving, among other options, is about anamnesis: the remembering of an event based on past experience.  Cleopas and the unnamed disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread because four days earlier, they had seen him do the exact same thing.  Not that blessing and breaking bread was uncommon in 1st century Jewish life, but that this blessing, this breaking, was different.  It was the blessing of their Rabbi, now their risen Lord, who had commanded them to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of him.

Two thousand years removed from that first Last Supper, we who are people of broken bread don’t have the recollection of the past event to draw on for ourselves.  What we do have, however, is the unbroken history of bread being broken from a Thursday evening in first century Jerusalem all the way up to today.  Our remembrance, our anamnesis, is based on the shared experience of generations of believers.  We remember because we have been told the story by those who have been told the story… by those who lived the story.  When we pray that our eyes might be open, we are asking God to tap us into the ongoing unveiling of the story, that we might take our place in remembering and sharing the good news of the risen Lord.

Believing is Seeing

Audio of today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read the text here.


Lost in the busyness of Holy Week was a publication by the Gallup pollsters that once again reminded the Church of the importance of good preaching.  In a survey that asked people what factored into their decisions about church attendance, 76% of respondents said that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” were a major factor in where they went to church.  75% also listed “sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” as a major factor.  With no offense intended to my colleague Ken Stein, only 38% suggested “a good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music” as a major factor.[1]  These statistics are nothing new.  I’ve been hearing about the need for quality preaching since before I went to seminary.  Seminaries, to their credit, do the best they can within the confines of a three-year curriculum to help would-be preachers begin to hone their craft.  At VTS, we were required to take a semester and a half of homiletics during our Middler year.  Much to my benefit as a preacher, I had the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel for a full semester.  Judith’s teaching style matched me to a “T”: she is exceedingly Type-A and loves rules.  She worked hard to mold us into good preachers.  Her goal was to teach us how to “proclaim the gospel in such a way it can be heard by the head and the heart.”  Even though I violate most of them on a regular basis, including at least two in that last clause, I still have Judith McDaniel’s patented “12 Homiletical Norms” saved in my files.  I will never forget her number one rule in preaching: “Settle for one point, well made.”  She was so serious about the need for one clear point that without an obvious thesis statement in the body of the first paragraph, your sermon could not be graded as an A.

Having now violated that norm as well, I can say that I am in good company.  It isn’t until his Gospel is almost over (and some scholars think maybe it was over) that John finally gives us a clear statement of his purpose for putting the story of Jesus to parchment.  “These are written,” John writes, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  All the poetry, the signs, the discourses; all the time spent on the high priestly prayer and the Passion; all the details and the care with which he wrote them, were included so that we might come to believe.  It might feel like this thesis statement is simply an appendix, tacked on after the story has been told, but I think John decided to include it here on purpose.  This thesis for belief comes right at the tail end of a story that shows us what belief requires.

This story takes place while it is still Sunday, the first Easter Day, the first day of the week and the first day of new life.  That whole scene at the tomb that we heard about last week had just happened that morning.  John and Peter had seen the empty tomb and gone home when Mary came barging in, breathlessly declaring, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what did the disciples do with that news?  There was no Alleluia Party, I can tell you that.  No shrimp cocktail.  No champagne punch.  No cake.  Only fear, disbelief, and locked doors.  This pattern of testimony and skepticism wasn’t new.  Back at the very beginning of John’s Gospel is the story of Andrew who, after he had encountered Jesus, went to tell his brother Peter.  Peter needed his own encounter, and so off they went to meet Jesus.  The pattern repeated the very next day when Philip ran off to find Nathaniel who is famous for responding to Philip’s testimony with, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Belief based on the testimony of someone else proves challenging in John’s Gospel.  John knows that belief in Jesus is easiest with a personal encounter. [2]  But after the Ascension, John also understands that coming to faith based on the testimony of someone else is the norm, and so he wrote his story, that we might come to believe having never seen.

Back in that locked house on Easter evening, other than Mary Magdalene, we have no idea if any of the disciples gathered there actually believed that Jesus was really risen from the dead.  If anyone did believe, they were likely the most afraid.  When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, it sealed the deal on his execution.  Imagine what havoc Rome and the Temple would wreak upon Jesus’ friends if he really had the power to come back from the dead!  Those who were still unbelieving likely had similar fears with the added thought of how awful it would be to get yourself killed for following some guy whose tragic death was made more pathetic when he wasn’t resurrected like he said he would be, but his body was stolen to perpetuate some ridiculous hoax.  The disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, but they couldn’t come to believe, when suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst.

That morning, Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord was simply her name.  Now, the disciples were offered peace and his wounds, and like Mary, they rejoiced at the sight of their risen Lord.  Well, not all of them.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there.  Like Andrew going to find Peter and Philip running off to find Nathaniel, the disciples went in search of Thomas with the Easter proclamation of Mary Magdalene on their lips.  “We have seen the Lord!”  Here is where most preachers will go off on a tangent about Doubting Thomas, but I refuse.  Partially because Judith McDaniel’s voice is reminding me that I’ve already failed pretty miserably at settling on one well-made point.  But mostly, I refuse to beat the dead horse of Doubting Thomas because I think calling Thomas “doubting” is a bad reading of the Scripture.  Thomas didn’t have any less faith than the rest of the disciples had shown the week before.  All he asked for was what Mary and the rest all received on Easter.  He wanted to see and touch Jesus.  Like everyone else in John’s Gospel, before Thomas could believe, he needed to encounter the risen Lord.

It took eight days, but Thomas got his chance, when back in that same locked house, Jesus once again appeared in their midst.  Again, he offered peace.  He invited Thomas to touch his wounds and asked him to give up his unbelieving ways just as the rest of them had a week earlier.  Jesus invited Thomas into a relationship, which is what belief is all about.  Believing in Jesus means that we trust that he is who is says he is and will do what he has promised to do.  It means that through his resurrection, we can enter into an ongoing relationship with him by following where he leads.

It is into this relationship that John hopes all of us will enter.  Both he and Jesus know how difficult that will be for those of us who would come later.  Unlike Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel, Mary, the Ten, and eventually Thomas, we don’t have the opportunity to encounter Jesus face-to-face.  Much as we would like him to, Jesus isn’t likely to miraculously appear in our midst, offer us peace, and invite us to touch his wounds.  We who believe without seeing are blessed, Jesus assures us, because ours is a faith much more challenging to maintain.  The disciples came to believe through seeing.  We will have to come to see through believing.  Eventually, if we stick around long enough; if we can hang on to belief through its infancy; if we are open to the Spirit, we will have our own opportunities to see Jesus, to receive his peace, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.  Through belief, Jesus enters our lives, despite whatever doors we may have locked in fear, and we are blessed.  He enters offering peace, and invites us to abundant life in his name.  God knows, it isn’t easy to maintain an Easter faith without seeing Jesus face-to-face, but when we can, we are assuredly blessed in believing.  Amen.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222

My Annual Plea for Thomas

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I grew up attending St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  Underneath this grand stained glass window, I cut my teeth on the Book of Common Prayer, made a joyful noise in VBS, learned what it means to pray for one another, fell in love with that one note in “O Holy Night,” and even preached a time or two.  More than anything else, however, this window has remained in my memory.  It shows the risen Lord offering the wounds in his hands to Thomas with is usual symbols of the spear by which he was martyred and the carpenter’s square indicating his profession before joining the 12.

Despite the fact that neither Jesus nor Thomas appear to have eyes in this window, it seems clear that Jesus is looking at Thomas with compassion.  Despite what our common reading of the standard Gospel lesson for Easter 2 might try to tell us, I am convinced that the encounter between Jesus and Thomas is not one of rebuke by Jesus or doubt by Thomas, but of mutual affection and joy.  See, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the rest of the disciples had received.  He wanted to see Jesus risen from the dead.  He wanted to know that it wasn’t some sick joke.  He needed to have some proof before he could give his life back over to the one in whom he had placed so much hope.  Jesus, for his part, seems more than willing to give Thomas what he needs.

His hope for Thomas is the same hope Jesus has for all of us.  “Don’t continue to be unbelieving, but believe.”  Jesus goes on to assure the many of us who would follow after Thomas and the others, that faith need not come from seeing and touching.  Instead, those who do not have the opportunity to see Jesus face-to-face are even more blessed by their faith.  Even so, we who follow Jesus may not see him physically, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll have the chance to meet him, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.

As you prepare your sermons for Easter 2, dear readers, please don’t wag your finger at Thomas.  Refuse to call him doubting.  Instead, offer him up as the example of all those who had the opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.  Remind your flock that while we don’t have that chance, each of us can meet Jesus in faith and be blessed.

Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

The world of Biblical studies is constantly changing.  New archaeological discoveries breed new realities.  New interpretive lenses bring new understanding.  Whether it is the Canonical approach, the Historical-Critical Method, the JEDP Documentary Hypothesis, or the Jesus Seminar, scholars need to publish or perish, and so Biblical studies journals are filled with papers.  Some aren’t worth the pixels on the screen, while others will stand the test of time.  One that continues to carry weight (pardon the pun), is The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, common called Strong’s Concordance, which was first published in 1890, but continues to find its home on the shelves of preachers to this day.  Strong’s is basically a list of every word that appears in the Bible; all 8,674 Hebrew and 5,624 Greek words contained therein. It is a helpful tool for anyone who would like work in the original languages of the Scriptures, but isn’t exactly a Greek or Hebrew scholar.

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That’s one Strong neck beard!

Strong’s Greek word number 1515 is Eirene, the Greek word for “peace,” which Jesus speaks over his disciples in the opening verse of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  One of the definitions of eirene, way down at the number five slot is “of Christianity, the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatsoever sort that is.”  How spectacular is that sentence?  Anyway, what struck me this morning is the reality of the disciples’ fear, and Jesus’ just as clear declaration of peace.

The disciples, despite having heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene that Jesus was raised from the dead, cannot find peace.  They are still very much stuck in fear, and are far from content with their earthly lot.  Whatsoever sort it is is still one of confusion, uncertainty, and the stark reality that the news of Jesus’ resurrection meant that the cross hairs of the Roman/Temple Alliance were aimed squarely at them.  Whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead, the fact that his body was missing from the tomb meant bad things for his closest companions.  They gathered in that upper room afraid for their lives, and Jesus entered the locked space, and said:

Shalom, Eirene, Pax, Peace

It’ll take several more encounters with the risen Jesus and a pretty hefty dose of the Holy Spirit before the disciples are able to find that tranquil state in which dying for their faith in the risen Lord isn’t something to be feared.  But on this night, the first evening of the resurrection reality, Jesus invites them to begin the journey.  He invites us as well.  In the midst of whatsoever sort of earthly lot are in, Jesus offers us the eirene of God that passes all understanding.  He invites us to find in him the tranquil state of the soul.