A Weighty Text


This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question looks back at the text the Good Book Club had assigned for Sunday.  In it, we find Jesus caught up in several different theological confrontations.  It began with some wondering if Jesus was harnessing the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons, and somehow, devolved into a series of “woe to yous” against the Pharisees and canon lawyers.  Our question comes from Jesus’ strong rebuke of the lawyers, “Woe also to you lawyers!  For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not life a finger to ease them.”

What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

This question came to mind last night and again this morning as I reflected more and more on that most famous line in motor racing the Bible, John 3:16.  It seems there are two starkly contrasting ways in which this passage can be used.  One camp reads “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.  It is, I would argue, the burden the church has carried since the Enlightenment.  As knowledge became the idol and the ideal, more and more religious leaders have focused on the modern equivalent of hand washing routines; getting bogged down, most often, in a specific theory of atonement as the means-by-which-Jesus-saves-us-hands-down-and-to-question-is-to-be-of-Beezebul.

Others choose to read John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  The action of God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of judgment or condemnation (cf. John 3:17), but was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  The measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but rather one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement  Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life, then, isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy, but rather, it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

So, what burden does the church carry or load on people that it needs to ease?  Well, it seems in a tradition that prides itself on having learned clergy and a well-educated laity, is to get out of our heads, roll up our sleeves, and believe the Kingdom of God into existence wherever God has called us to be.

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For the love of darkness

It is almost unfair to make John 3:16 part of a lesson that can be read on Sunday morning.  It has become such a cultural Christian trope that it is basically impossible for us to hear anything other than “For God so loved the world…”  We miss, in my opinion, the far better verse that immediately follows.  The RCL hivemind has tried to help us out, by including Jesus’ passing reference to that really odd story from Numbers 21, but honestly, what preacher in their right mind is going to the “God killed people with snakes and then saved them with an idol of a snake” story?  It seems the best option for this week might be to help people get past the snakes and forget about the man in the rainbow wig and preach the reprise of John’s light and darkness motif.


The judgment that Jesus came to save us from is this, that the light had come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of the light.  For all the good that Christianity has done in the world, for its music and art, for its (occasional) embrace of peace, for its (purported) sharing of the love of God, this statement about our love of darkness is as true today as it was when Jesus first said it.

It doesn’t take long to see what Jesus means.  A quick scroll of your Facebook newsfeed will show that Christians on both sides of the American political divide have decided to live in darkness, addicted to anger and worshiping the idol of being right.  Some are obvious: the racially motivated meme or the picture intended to poke fun at someone’s appearance.  Other instances of the darkness that we choose to love are less conspicuous.  It is the veiled dig at those who disagree with us; the passive aggressive comment about fellow children of God.

As we enter the middle week of Lent, it seems appropriate that things are as dark as they will get ahead of Good Friday.  Perhaps this week, rather than being enamored with John 3:16 or grossed out by snakes, it is probably a good opportunity to take stock of where we have decided to choose darkness rather than light, to repent of those decisions, and to ask God to help us walk in the true light of grace.

A Lenten Epiphany

As you are probably aware, the season of Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to Easter Day and the Feast of the Resurrection.  It is a season of penitence and fasting, in which we are invited to bring to mind our sinfulness, repent of our wrong-headedness and stiff-necks, and seek God’s forgiveness.  Because Easter is a movable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, Lent begins at different times each year.  This means that the number of Sundays after the Epiphany can vary.  What is unexpected, however, is when smack-dab in the middle of Lent, we get what feels like a Sunday in Epiphanytide.

Such is the case this Sunday with the foreshadowing that John uses in the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.  The lessons appointed for the Sundays after the Epiphany tell the of the ongoing revelation of God to humanity through Jesus Christ.  We hear of the Magi, who recognize Jesus as the King of the Jews thanks to the appearance of a star in the heavens.  In the Baptism story, Jesus is revealed to be God’s beloved Son.  Nathaniel recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel.  The season always concludes with the Transfiguration of Christ, wherein Peter, James, and John are made privy to Jesus’ full revelation as the Christ of God.

In Sunday’s lesson, then, the Third Sunday in Lent becomes another opportunity for who Jesus really is to be revealed to the disciples.  After the Jewish leaders demand some credentials after his turning the Temple system on its ear, Jesus tells them what the sign will be.  “Tear down this temple, and I will build it back in three days.”  John concludes the story by noting that “after [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”


Note the disciples (left) looking like “This is not going to end well.”

It is a slow play, to be sure, two, more likely even three years, in the making.  Over the course of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is continually pulling back the curtain, slowly, as his disciples and crowds are able, unveiling more and more fully who he really is and what he came to do.  It is helpful, I think, here in the season of Lent, to take a moment to reflect on what this time of preparation reveals to us about Jesus.  From the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent all the way through Holy Saturday’s holy waiting, the lead-up to Jesus’ Passion and death are constantly unveiling God’s grace and mercy to us.

The Lord’s Prayer – Good Book Club Week 3


In partnership with the Good Book Club, this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question deals with the lesson that we will read on Saturday (Luke 11:1-13): What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples?

Based on the request of Jesus’ disciples, it was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his disciples how to pray.  This makes sense, given that each Rabbi, steeped in the tradition of his school, would have different areas of focus.  The same is true, one might say, of Episcopal priests.  If it is true, and I think it is, that each of us only really has three sermons that we say in different ways, over and over again, then it would follow that our prayers and those we invite from our congregations, would fall in line with those areas of interest.

What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus teaches?  We learn his priorities.  By addressing God as Father, Jesus invites us to pray to one whom we know and who knows us deeply.  We hear echos of his first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah.  The Kingdom of God, that place where the blind see and those who are oppressed are set free, is at hand.  We are reminded that throughout history, God has been faithful, offering the sustenance needed for today, with the call to faith that comes with the promise that tomorrow will be the same.  In asking God that we might be forgiven, we are called to repentance, and by suggesting that we might forgive others, we are being called to follow the example of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and peace (shalom).

Finally, by asking God to save us from the time of trial, as my friend Scott Gunn noted in a piece on the Pope’s suggested edit to the Lord’s Prayer, we are naming our dependence upon God, asking that God might be at work in our lives, steering us clear of those things that would lead us from the path of righteousness.  We are, in effect, asking God for the road map to the Kingdom.

I am often asked why Episcopalians say the same things all the time.  Doesn’t it eventually just get said by rote?  Well, unfortunately, it does, but the same temptation exists in the “Father WeJus” model of prayer.  Rather than getting lost in the saying, the Lord’s Prayer, and others like it, that we say with regularity, invites us to dig deep into its meaning, to understand the words we are saying, and to live into the ramifications of our prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we learn that Kingdom Living is a two way street, God provides us plenty of opportunity and grace, but ultimately, we have a part to play in the work of re-creation.

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Early Zeal


As is often noted, there are two versions of story of Jesus clearing the Temple.  The one that is most often cited comes from each of the three synoptic Gospels, in which Jesus, either immediately after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, or shortly there after, drives out the money changers in preparation for a week of ongoing debate with the Pharisees and Scribes that will ultimately end in his arrest, torture, and death.  Less often studied, albeit read every three years on Lent 3B, is the version from John’s Gospel.  In John’s account, this story takes place on the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry.  It follows on the heels of Jesus calling his first disciples and performing his first sign by turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana.

While the synoptics point to the prophecy of Isaiah as Jesus’ motivation – “Why have you turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers?” – John looks instead to the Psalms.  Psalm 69.9, to be more specific.  As Jesus’ newly minted disciples look on in what can only be a combination of fear, horror, and exhilaration, Psalm 69 is recalled to them, “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.”  Clearly Jesus is consumed.  Clearly Jesus is zealous for the Lord’s house.  But why so much energy?  And why so early?

It would seem that the Gospel writers were avid proof texters.  Often, in all four of the Gospels, we hear references to a passage or two, even the merging of two or more passages, of the Old Testament, used to satisfy some piece of the larger story.  What is also true, however, is that they knew that story much better than we do.  They had been hearing the accounts of the Hebrew Bible since their childhoods.  They had sung the Psalms again and again from their youth.  It seems reasonable, then, to assume that when a passage of scripture is referenced, they assume the reader/hearer knows the fuller story.  When John has the disciples recall Psalm 69.9, it isn’t just about the zeal that Jesus has for his Father’s house, but it is the fullness of the story of the Psalmist.

In this case, since it comes so early in Jesus’ ministry, the reference to Psalm 69 and the zeal of Jesus serves to foreshadow what is to come.  As we work through the season of Lent, marching ever closer to Holy Week and Jesus’ Passion, the words of Psalm 69 ring with meaning.

V. 3 “I am weary with crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

V. 4b “many are those who would destry me,
my enemies who falsely accuse me.”

V. 15 “Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.”

V. 29 “I am lowly and in pain;
let your salvation, O God, protect me.”

V. 33 “The Lord hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds.”

A growing list


There is a well worn trope, whenever the 10 Commandments come around, for the preacher to stand before her/his congregation and say, “I must confess that I have violated one of the ten commandments.”  Their congregation gets itchy, assuming, of course, that it is the adultery or stealing bit, but then everybody gets a laugh when the preachers says, “I’m not great at keeping the Sabbath.”  Every time the 10 Commandments comes around, I think of the sermons I have heard start in just that way, and I chuckle while I roll my eyes.

This year, as I read the Commandments that God gave to Moses, the basic tenants of living in the Kingdom of God, I realized that I think my list of 10 Commandment failures is growing.  The Sabbath is nigh on impossible in 21st century America, but I am probably guilty of my fair share of coveting as well.  If Jesus is right, and holding anger against a brother or sister is equivalent to murder, well, I’ve probably done that too.  This might be the most popular sin in the social media culture in which we live.  Above all else, however, I know that my chief sin is the sin of idolatry.  In that way, I guess I’m more Pauline than I’ve ever realized as the entire Letter to the Romans deals with the human proclivity toward idolatry.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Romans, but rather a realization that there are so many things in this world that would be a god in my life.  My to-do list is high on that list.  My desire to make things right.  My wish that others would live by the same set of rules that I try to live by (I’m looking at you people who park in the fire lane at the grocery store and clog up the flow of traffic in an already to small parking lot).  Wanting to be liked, to do my job well.  Excellence.  Me.

It being Lent, when 10 Commandments week rolls around, it seems like a good opportunity to do this sort of self-examination, so long as repentance follows shortly thereafter.  That’ll be my prayer this week.  For you as well as myself.  That the 10 Commandments might give us a chance to reflect on the ways in which we fall short of God’s dream, to seek forgiveness, and to move forward in a new way, eschewing idolatry and covetousness and seeking Sabbath and God’s refreshment.

A Jesus Precept – take up your cross

Due to technical difficulties with our website, today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website yet, so you’ll have to read on.


Earlier this week, my family had the opportunity to do something that we hadn’t done in a long time: We piled onto the couch and enjoyed a movie together.  Thanks to the magic of Red Box, we were able to swing by Walgreens and rent a copy of the movie Wonder, which is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, written by R. J. Palacio.  It tells the story of Augie Pullman, a fifth-grade boy who was born with a rare, genetic defect, known as Treacher Collins syndrome, that left his face disfigured.  After twenty-seven surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie’s parents enrolled him in a mainstream prep school to begin junior high.  The movie, and the novel, tell the story of that year.  The movie organizes itself in a few different ways.  It switches perspective among several of the major characters.  It jumps across the high points of the calendar from summer vacation, through Halloween, Christmas, spring play season, and graduation.  It also uses Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, to carry time forward.  Each month, Mr. Browne unveils a new precept for the class to consider.  Precepts he explains, are rules about really important things.  They are words to live by.  For Mr. Browne’s students, each precept is a core value that defines their common life.  The school year begins with a quote from Wayne Dyer, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  It ends with a quote from a song by the Polyphonic Spree, “Just follow the day and reach for the sun.”

I’ve preached a lot recently about our core values as they are expressed in our mission statement, but as I watched Wonder and thought about Mr. Browne’s precepts, I’ve began to think more and more about my personal core values.  What are the rules by which I want to live my life?  For those of us who claim to be disciples, fundamental to answering these questions is trying to come to understand the precepts of Jesus.  The Bible is full of rules about really important things.  The Old Testament has the forbidden fruit, the 10 Commandments, and the 613 Laws of the Torah. The New Testament includes laundry lists of moral teaching in Paul’s letters.  Even in the teachings of Jesus, we can find all sorts of rules that seem as important as they are impossible to live by.  How do we distill it down?  Where do we look for the core teachings?  It seems reasonable to set our sights on a few highlights by looking for some moments where Jesus’ teaching seems to stand out.  Last Sunday, for example, we heard Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ first sermon.  It seems to reason that this inaugural address would serve as a precept for the ministry of Jesus.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”  To be a disciple means to repent, to change direction away from following the ways of the kingdom of this world and toward the ways of the kingdom of God.

Our Gospel lesson for today is another one of those highpoint moments in the life and ministry of Jesus from which we can learn some of the core values of kingdom living.  Jesus and his disciples are on a corporate retreat in the mountain town of Caesarea Philippi.  After a flurry of activity, they’ve gone on retreat to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday ministry and to take stock of where things are.  Here, Jesus invites his disciples to reflect on what they have seen and heard.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asks.  “John the Baptist,” they reply, “and others say Elijah or another one of the prophets.”  Like any good retreat leader, Jesus presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter is quick to answer, “You are the Messiah.”

In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first and only time that Jesus is called the Messiah in a positive way.  During his trial, the High Priest will ask Jesus accusingly, “Are you the Messiah?”  Later, while Jesus is being crucified, the crowds mock him, shouting, “Let the Messiah come down from the cross.”  It is only here, while on retreat in the resort town of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus’ disciples call him the Messiah, and so it is here that Jesus takes the opportunity to help them better understand what that means.  While they might have images of riding into Jerusalem with an army, ready to overthrow the Romans and reform the Temple system, Jesus is quick to let them know that being the Messiah of God means something very different.  He will be rejected by the religious powers that be, undergo great suffering, and ultimately, be killed.  But, on the third day, he will rise again.  Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus offers a core values sermon, as a reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, for not only his closest disciples, but the crowd that had followed them even on retreat.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This is certainly not the vision of discipleship that people like Peter were hoping for, but it is what Jesus has had in mind from the very beginning.  It is, I believe, the most important precept of the Christian faith.  Following Jesus means setting aside our own desires, no matter how noble they may seem, in order to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Following Jesus means taking up our cross and following in his way.  Contrary to common usage, the crosses we bear aren’t the minor inconveniences of life, but the cross is the very means by which we lose our lives.  Our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the one who has come to restore all of humanity to right relationship, is the cross we are invited to carry.  It means giving up everything for the will of God. It means laying down our lives for the betterment of the other. The cross we bear is not a difficult part of life that God gives us, but our whole life given back to God. Just as Jesus will carry his own cross to his execution, so too do we carry ours, laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom, so that today and every day, we too might know the resurrected life.

Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means standing up for what we believe in.  It means living into the fullness of our baptismal vows.  It means loving our neighbor, even when it is unpopular.  It means opening our doors to strangers who might make us feel uncomfortable.  It means sharing our resources of time, talent, and treasure to share the love of God with a world that desperately needs it.  And, it means, coming to grips with the reality that the adversary is standing at every turn, inviting us to doubt God’s never-failing love, to fear the unknown, and to question God’s goodness.  Nobody, certainly not even Jesus himself, said following Jesus would be easy.  We who claim to be his disciples should be well aware of that, but Jesus does go on to promise that those who lose their lives for his sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.

The penultimate precept in Mr. Browne’s class is attributed to Anglican Priest and co-founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley.  It reads, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”  That’s taking up your cross and following Jesus.  We don’t get to pick to whom we will share God’s love.  We don’t get to pick when or where or even necessarily how.  Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simply to use the gifts entrusted to our care to build up the Kingdom and spread the love of God today and every day of our lives.  Amen.