Day Clean

I love sleep.  The refreshment of the Sunday post-church clergy nap.  The joy of sliding into clean sheets.  The cocoon of comfort under the covers while the ceiling fan swirls cool air all around.  I love sleep.  So it is that I noticed with some trepidation yesterday this idea that in John’s Revelation of the new heaven and the new earth that there will be no night.  If, in fact, the glories of heaven are beyond even my wildest imagination, then at the very minimum, it will include biscuits and gravy, some sort of non-injurious football, and the opportunity to sleep.

As this somewhat ridiculous mental exercise was bouncing around in my head yesterday, the pilgrimage in which I am journeying took a tour of about three blocks of Savannah, Georgia from the River where slave ships docked to the slave auction block that sat in the shadow and under the protection of Christ Episcopal Church.  Our guide, the operator of Underground Tours of Savannah, Sister Patt, is a descendent of the Gullah Geechee people and those among the 14 different tribes stolen from the Golden Coast and sold into slavery in the United States.  Sister Patt shared with us some of the customs and language of the Gullah Geechee, including this concept of “Day Clean.”

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For the Gullah Geechee, sunrise is Day Clean, it is God wiping the slate clean for a fresh start.  As it says in Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  Each morning is an opportunity to choose, yet again, to live for the Kingdom of God, to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  In 21st century America, we almost live without night and the natural cycles of time.  Each day is not its own, but part of a never ending slog toward progress.  The hamster wheel never slows down.  But if we are intentional about marking time, as our ancestors did, I think this concept of Day Clean can be of great value.  It is a way to honor the good and the bad that happened yesterday, to offer it to God, and then to start the day fresh, forgiven, restored, and working toward a more hopeful future.

As I sat on the beach at Isle of Palms, SC this morning, I gave thanks for the opportunity of a new beginning, a fresh start, a Day Clean, as I seek to discern how God is calling me to take what I’ve learned and experienced during this week into my life and my ministry. I wish for you, dear reader, the chance to experience a Day Clean for yourself.

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Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

Parlor Tricks

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One of the gifts of having two young children is that I end up watching television shows I might not otherwise watch.  Well, its a gift sometimes.  Our third go ’round of the Thundermans isn’t really a gift at this point.  Anyway, one of the shows we like to watch as a family is America’s Got Talent.  You probably know the premise, but it is basically a variety show in which acts of all kinds compete for a million dollar prize and a show in Las Vegas.  I think it is safe to say that our favorite acts in AGT are the close up magic acts.  What those people can do right in front of your eyes, and how it can be conveyed both to the judges, mere inches away, and in my living room thousands of miles and a DVR time-hop away, is nothing short of amazing.

As I re-read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, the well-worn story of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly he would have gotten X’d off by Simon.

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In John’s Gospel, there are seven signs, or miracles, highlighted in Jesus’ ministry: 1) water into wine, 2) healing the boy in Capernaum, 3) healing the paralytic in Bethesda, 4) feeding the 5,000, 5) walking on water, 6) healing the man born blind, and 7) raising Lazarus from the dead.  When compared with the other six, this first sign of turning 180 gallons of water into the finest of wines seems like nothing more than a silly parlor trick.  It is the kind of close of magic that my daughters perform with a deck of cards and their ability to count to 10.

My severe eye-roll at this miracle notwithstanding, the response to it by the disciples is pretty astonishing.  Somehow, in the wave of his hand, turning water into wine, Jesus revealed his glory.  Despite the fact that it was not yet his time, and that like his baptism, it seems he only did it to make his mama happy, in this first sign, Jesus revealed to the world his glory – his magnificence, grace, and majesty – the same Greek word used to describe his Second Coming with “power and glory.”  Somehow, in John’s Gospel, by way of what I would deem to be a cheap trick, it seems Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and in so doing, his disciples came to believe in him.

That’s the funny thing about faith.  I doesn’t come to us all in the same way.  I might roll my eyes at the wedding miracle and prefer to look at Mark’s first miracle of healing a demoniac in Capernaum as more revelatory, but that’s me.  For others, this miracle of water turning into wine shows Jesus power of the nature, it affirms his status as the pre-existent Word from John’s prologue, and sets up the other six miracles that will follow.  No matter how we get to it, each of these signs are meant to point us to the truth that Jesus really is the Son of God.  Each, in its own unique way, shows us the authority given by the Father to the Son.  Each calls us to answer the question the disciples had to reckon in the middle of that wedding banquet.  Do you believe?

An Election Week Reminder

One of the unintended consequences of cutting the cord on our satellite dish has been the return of local commercials as we watch network television via an antenna.  This time of year, local commercials means only one thing – political commercials.  With almost every local official up for re-election and several key state and national races in play, my Saturday SEC on CBS was inundated with adds begging me to vote, occasionally for someone, but, more often, against someone.  The timing seems about right.  Races tend to turn negative in the last 10 days or so as a candidate tries to motivate his or her base to get out and vote.  Negative ads all seem to turn around one key question, can my opponent be trusted? From the perspective of the ad maker, the answer should be an obvious no, and they’ll do pretty much whatever they can to ensure it.

Turning the question around trust is an interesting tactic, as once again, RCL Track 2 congregations will find themselves reading Psalm 146 during an election week.  It shouldn’t take you long to realize that the Scriptures don’t have much time for modern political campaign strategies.

146:2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Despite what TV and radio ads, door hangers, and an entire rainforest full of mailers might suggest, God knows that the empire is not the means to the ends of the Kingdom of God.  Despite the reality that Christianity has essentially been the state religion for more than 1,600 years, followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have never really been intended to fit within the parameters of the empire.  Our’s is a higher calling than Republican or Democrat, but rather, as the Psalmist goes on to say “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! * whose hope is in the Lord their God”

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Every election season, this seems to be harder and harder to remember.  Granted, it is also increasingly clear that candidates and their supporters have no qualms with muddying up their theology with partisan politics.  When any politician is made out to be on par with the eternal Word of God, things have gotten a skewed.  As followers of Jesus, our call is above and beyond that fray.  Our call, again in the words of the Psalmist, is to righteousness, which is defined by such actions as caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and the widow, and frustrating the way of the wicked.

It is ok to allow your faith to inform your vote, but when we get turned around and make our vote our faith and place our trust in the rulers of the earth, then we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.  So, pray for all candidates for political office.  Vote your conscience.  But always remember, that God’s kingdom and its righteousness is where your trust is more properly aligned.

The Rich

In an era of growing income inequality, with many, for the first time, coming to recognize the plutocratic power of a few corporate conglomerates, it is easy to hear Sunday’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this temptation is one we should be wary of.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.

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As preachers are wont to do, however, I can’t help but think if this passage from Mark is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, Peterson translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty thusly, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as fiscally rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

See, kingdom living is about trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and about seeing that existence isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus’ encounter with the rich man isn’t about money – it is stewardship season, after all – but what I am suggesting is that if we think it is only about money, it becomes too easy to dismiss.

You might join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I think that from time to time.  Just remember the words of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible,” that is, you can’t rely on your self to get it done, “bur not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

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That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

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JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?