A Fishing Story: God Cares – a sermon

I am a terrible fisherman.  It isn’t that I don’t like to fish.  There are few things I enjoy more than getting on a boat, rod and tackle in hand, in search of a good meal.  It is really more that I don’t do it often enough to know what I’m doing.  There is both a science and an art to fishing, and I know neither.  I don’t know what time of year what fish are biting.  I don’t know what time of day is best.  I don’t know what kind of bait to use to catch which fish.  I don’t even know how to filet my catch into something edible.  When I go fishing, I am 100% at the mercy of my guide.  When I would go night fishing with my friend, Brad, I trusted him to get us to the right spots, to rig the lines the right way, and to bring us home with a mess of speckled trout.  When my dad and I went out in search of red fish near Alabama Point, we paid a guy who knew the water, knew the habits, and, most importantly, knew how to keep us from running aground.

Trusting in someone else’s knowledge has worked for me almost every time I’ve gone fishing.  Almost.  Then, there was the time I went out on the Blue Sky in search of tuna.  It was to be a twenty-four-hour fishing expedition.  We left at about 5:30 in the evening and were headed ninety miles off shore.  I trusted that the captain would get us there safely, that the deckhands would put us on some big fish, and, erroneously, that the weather man would be correct.  After dinner, a few beers, and good conversation watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, we all turned in to get some sleep ahead of our two am wake up call.  Somewhere in those few hours of sleep, the forecast for one to two-foot seas became a reality of six to eight-foot swells.

I can remember it vividly, even as I’ll spare you the vivid details, but with the combination of diesel fumes, a wildly undulating oil platform that in the dark of night looked like a giant spider bathed in yellow flood lights, and the rocking of the boat, by the time our second fish came aboard, I was doing a great job of chumming the water.  I didn’t really know what to do.  Ninety miles off shore, on a fifty-four foot boat, there isn’t really anywhere to go, and I knew inside the cabin would make things worse.  As my buddies fished and the deckhands worked to bring the giant fish over the gunwale, I wondered if anyone cared that I existed at all.  Were they all hoping that maybe I would just perish so that they could fish without the sound of me retching behind them.

Just then, the captain came down from his perch in the crow’s nest, high above deck with two pills in his hand.  “Take these,” he said, and I didn’t hesitate.  I didn’t question.  I trusted Captain Richard to know what to do about sea sickness. I popped those two pills and six hours later, I woke up.  The seas hadn’t calmed much, but my stomach had.

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Jesus and his disciples trusted one another.  James, John, Peter, and Andrew had all been called by Jesus right off of their fishing boats.  He knew that they knew the Sea of Galilee like the backs of their hands.  They’d fished deep into the night.  They’d experienced its violent squalls.  They’d seen everything that the Sea of Galilee had to offer, and so Jesus took the opportunity to rest.  The disciples, for their part, knew that Jesus had miraculous powers.  They had seen him heal many women and men.  They had watched as he touched a man with leprosy and made him clean.  They knew that he was a special gift from God and they trusted that Jesus was always going to take care of them.

And so, it was, that one night, Jesus had wrapped up his teaching for the day, and when he said, “let’s go to the other side,” they all loaded up and went, no questions asked.  Now, it must be pointed out here that this was no ordinary trip for Jesus and his disciples.  In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first trip outside of Galilee.  Leaving from Capernaum, they were headed east, across about six miles of lake to the region of the Decapolis, a Greek speaking area, filled with Roman citizens.  They were, for all intents and purposes, headed to Gentile territory.  Jesus’ disciples trusted that he knew what he was doing.  They must have assumed that he had a plan for what they would do when they arrived, and so, without any hesitation, they headed to Gergesa.

As the story goes, in the dark of the night, a storm rose up such that the seasoned fishermen had never seen before.  It would have taken a real doozy of a storm to scare the sons of thunder, James and John, but Mark tells us that all of the disciples were convinced they were going to sink.  No doubt, they all knew of someone who had found their demise 141 feet deep in the Sea of Galilee during a swift moving storm.  In the midst of their fear, the first thing to sink to the bottom of the lake was their trust in Jesus who was asleep in the back of the boat.

“Teacher!”  Not master.  Not Lord.  Those honorifics were swept up in the howling wind.  Tonight, Jesus wasn’t a miracle worker from God, but he had been demoted to teacher, the one who they had chosen to hitch their wagons to and were beginning to wonder why.  “Teacher!  Don’t you care that we are perishing?!?!”  This is perhaps the most challenging rebuke anyone could give to Jesus.  Don’t you care?  Of course, Jesus cares.  He cared about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.  He cared about the man with the withered hand.  He cared about the crowds of thousands that pressed in upon him.  God cares about everyone, that’s why God sent Jesus to earth to proclaim the Good News of salvation for all people.

Jesus most certainly did care, and so he jumped up, and with the harsh words of anger rebuked the wind and calmed the waves.  Jesus deeply cares, and so when the ordeal was over, he looked his disciples square in the eyes and said, “Why don’t you trust me yet?”

It is not uncommon in times of hardship to cry out to God and wonder, “don’t you care?”  With the world changing so rapidly, it can feel like a mighty storm has whipped up on us in the dark of night.  It would seem that we have every reason to be frightened, and to wonder if all that we had hoped for might be for not.  It is totally natural to lament what feels like God’s absence, as if God were asleep at the helm of the entire universe, and wonder, does God really care about us?  No one said the life of faith would be easy.  In those moments of doubt, when our trust in God seems to be wavering, we are in good company.  Even Jesus’ closest friends had trouble holding on to that trust in hard times.

What this story helps me remember is that like Captain Richard, God is always paying attention.  God knows what you are going through because God is right there in the boat with you.  God does care, and even in those moments when God chooses not to stop the wind or calm the waves, God is there.  God will never abandon us to the pit.  The world may be rocking and rolling under our feet, but God is there.  God loves you, and God will never leave you alone.

When Jesus and his disciples get to the other side, they will be greeted by a man possessed with a legion of demons.  The momentary calm after the storm will break and fear will once again strike the disciples.  Yet, there again, Jesus won’t abandon them.  Nor will he abandon the demoniac.  God’s compassion and love knows no bounds.  God’s mercy is everlasting.  God cares – about you and about the whole world.  Amen.

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The Irrational Logic of Love

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Under normal circumstances, the use of circular logic is not recommended.  It is a logical fallacy to use the end to justify the question at hand.  Describing the love of God, however, is not something that can be defined by logic.  God’s love is, as I’ve said elsewhere, prodigal.  It is poured out in abundance, with reckless abandon, such that all of humanity, good and evil, believer and heathen, sinner and saint, fall within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one of those moments when the irrational logic of love becomes abundantly clear.  Well, clear as mud anyway.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 15:10-12)

If we keep the commandments of Jesus, we will abide in his love.  OK, great, so what are the commandments of Jesus?  To love one another as he has loved us.  Right, so we love like Jesus loves in order to abide in Jesus’ love?  That’s a lot of love.  So much love that these words from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died fill me with a mixture of comfort and fear.  There is no way I can love my neighbor like Jesus loves me.  Yet, I take some solace in the promise that if I do, I will abide in Jesus’ love, for it is out of that love that I will be able to love.

Wait… what did I just type?

See, the love of God is irrational.  We who would follow Jesus are invited into that irrationality.  We are called upon to love beyond our means precisely because it will teach us to rely on God who is love.  We love because God loved us first, and it is in that relationship of receiving God’s abundant love in order to share it with the world that we ultimately experience the fullness of joy that is our promise from God.

So love the world recklessly and extravagantly, just as God does, because God loves you recklessly and extravagantly.

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.

Preaching Pithiness

I’ve noted this interesting tidbit before, but according to a recent study by the good people at Microsoft, the smartphone age has brought with it a decline in the average attention span of an adult to less than that of the common goldfish.  Since the year 2000, our ability to focus on any single item has dropped from a measly 12 seconds to a minuscule 8 seconds.  For those who can’t focus long enough to do the math, that’s a 33% decline in 15 years!  The outside world has continuously been adjusting as well as adjusting to this decline.  We see it everywhere.  Billboards that were once static are now digital and ever changing.  Our television screens are full of information crawling across the bottom, cluttering up the corners, and sometimes filling a third of the screen.

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This bit of trivia came to mind for me this morning as I re-read the lessons appointed for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and realized that from beginning to end, the preacher is dealing with one pithy soundbite after another.  As I tried to find a chunk of scripture to focus on, I felt my mind jumping back and forth, here and there, up and down.  I began to wonder what it will sound like to the average Christian on Sunday morning?  Will it just be a series of sound bytes that one can take or leave at one’s pleasure, or is there something of a cohesiveness to all the lessons?  More practically, though I am not preaching this week, I’m wondering how one would go about preaching pithiness?

There are probably several ways to deal with this conundrum.  Despite my mind’s inability to track with a single passage, there are several sections of these lessons that deserve some deep mining.  The section dealing with the harvest and leaving gleanings for the poor would be a fascinating study in 21st century America.  The admonition against hate and reproach could be studied under a microscope.  Paul’s play on wisdom and foolishness could take 45 minutes to unpack, as would each of the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses.  The other option would be to hopscotch one’s way through the lessons.  Perhaps there is a theme – holiness or love – that could serve as a thread that is pulled through a pithy quote or two from each lesson.

No matter which path the preacher chooses, the battle is uphill but not waged alone.  As the Psalmist reminds us in yet another series of decent one-liners that is thread together into a prayer, it is ultimately God’s work to teach us the Law of love.  As preachers, our task is to do the work of study, to be prepared, and then to get out of the way and let the Spirit to its work through our words in the hearts of the faithful.  Best wishes this week, dear friends.  I’ll be praying for you eight seconds at a time.

God Searches – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  No, I’m not talking about Christmas, even though Hobby Lobby has been selling Christmas trees for more than a month now.  I’m not even talking about Pumpkin Spice Latte season.  Those things are like diabetes in a cup.  No, I’m excited because it is Parable Season!  As we wrap up the long Season after Pentecost, seven out of ten Sundays will feature at least one parable from Jesus.  This week, we are gifted with two: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.  Certainly, these are two of my favorites.

Titles like those make Parables so easy to digest.  We already know what they are about before we even read them.  Of course, these parables weren’t told into a vacuum.  As much as preachers would like to make them universal fables, able to tell us how to live our lives 2,000 years after they were told, this is rarely, if ever, possible.  Jesus’ parables are always told in the context of a particular group of people for a very particular reason.  Our two parables today are told to a hodge-podge group that included Pharisees, tax collectors, scribes, and sinners.  Tax collectors and sinners, Luke tells us, were particularly drawn to Jesus.  His message of repentance and forgiveness must have struck a chord with these two traditionally ostracized groups.  They came from far and wide to listen to what he had to say.

Jesus’ popularity with sinners and tax collectors made him very unpopular with the Pharisees and the scribes whose life work it was to help the righteous live according to the Law.  Sinners and tax collectors were considered incorrigible.  It wasn’t worth the breath to try to convince them to follow the rules.  The teachers of the Law had long-since given up hope.  Rather than just roll their eyes at the naïve Rabbi from the boondocks who was trying to convert the heathens and ignore what Jesus was up to, the Pharisees and scribes began to grumble.  They grumbled that Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors.  Worse than that, he ate with them.  He received them into his life.  He risked being contaminated by their sinful ickiness.  He touched them, hugged them, and cared for them.  The content of their grumbling tells us that Jesus was in the habit of this sort of behavior.  He routinely risked his own purity in order to receive into himself all sorts of people.

Truth be told, if the Pharisees had simply grumbled about these things, we might not have this story.  The real problem is that they did more than grumble. The word that Luke uses here is the same word used to describe the murmuring of the Israelite’s in the wilderness.  Throughout the Bible, it is clear that grumbling and murmuring are near the top of the list of things one should never do: it often ends very poorly for those who decide to try it out.  Remember that time, after God had saved the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, when they murmured against God because they didn’t have enough water or enough food or even the right kind of food.  They murmured and they complained all the way to the point of building a golden calf to worship instead of the God they were so accustomed to complaining about.  As we heard this morning, they were a well-reasoned argument from Moses away from being utterly destroyed by God’s red hot wrath.

It is important that Luke uses this particular word to describe the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes.  In Hebrew, the same word that is translated as “murmur” also means “to lodge” or “to abide.”  Murmuring sets up a dwelling place of discontentment in your heart.  It pushes out hope and joy and peace, and replaces it with resentment, frustration, and dis-ease.  When murmuring sets up residence in your heart, there is no longer room for God, and when there is no longer room for God, you are lost.  The Pharisees and the scribes in our story today were lost, and it is to these lost religious leaders – full of righteousness murmuring, yet unable to make room for God – Jesus tells a series of three parables about lostness, two of which we hear today.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  I told this parable to our prEYC on Wednesday, and we decided that actually none of us would do that.  Why would you risk leaving ninety-nine sheep to be eaten by wolves to track down one that was already as good as dead?  That just doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what God does.  He relentlessly pursues that one lost sheep until he finds it.  Whether that lost sheep is a notoriously sinful person or a murmur-infected religious leader, God searches and searches and searches until he finds each and every lost soul, and each time he finds one, the celebration in heaven is like no party we have ever seen before.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  That seems reasonable Jesus.  Sure, when I lose something of value, I’ll dig around until I find it, absolutely.  “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying ‘Rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I have lost.’”  Well, no, Jesus, I probably wouldn’t do that.  I doubt that having found my silver coin, I would then spend it and several more to throw a party over finding it.  That’s just foolishness.  It would be crazy to be so lavish, but this is exactly how God acts toward all of us who are lost.

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look how happy she is

God loves us like crazy.  He loves us with reckless abandon, and because of that deep and abiding love, God would risk everything to find a single lost soul.  In sending his Son to share our human nature and to live and die as one of us, God did risk everything, and the best part of this whole crazy story is that he risked it all to find you.  These parables aren’t stories about a God who desires to save all of us in some grand cosmic scheme.  They aren’t about a search for two coins or ten sheep or billions of people; these are stories about risking everything to find only one thing.  God left ninety-nine righteous sheep at risk to find one solitary lost soul.  God pulled out his lantern, got down on all fours, and risked what might be hiding under the couch to find you in your lostness, and he’ll do it again and again and again.  Every time you find yourself lost, know that God is already looking to find you, and when he does, there will be a party in heaven like you would not believe.  I can’t wait to one day see what that party is like on Sunday mornings, when millions of Christians are in church, confessing their sins, and turning toward God anew.  That party must be absolutely ridiculous!

The Pharisees, even as they lived faithful lives were completely lost.  They had forgotten that at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham was the promise to bless all the people of the earth.  From the very beginning, it has been God’s deepest desire to restore to right relationship every lost soul, every sinner, every tax collector, every murmuring Pharisee.  From the very beginning, it has been God’s deepest desire to find you.  No matter where you got lost, God is searching with love and concern, and when he finds you, there will be joy in heaven.  “Rejoice with me,” God says, “for I have found my beloved who was lost.”  Amen.

Too much to bear – a sermon

My Trinity Sunday sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


“Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” If you listened carefully on Monday morning, you might have been able to hear preachers across the globe letting out a huge sigh of relief as they read the opening line to today’s Gospel lesson and realized that Jesus himself was giving them a pass on preaching the doctrine of the Trinity. You see, today is the most dreaded preaching day of the year.  The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday is one of those days when we preachers put way too much pressure on ourselves to explain the unexplainable.  Over the course of some two thousand years, the Church has yet to find a suitable way to explain the Trinity that is a) easy to understand and b) not filled with heresy, and yet, every year, thousands of preachers try to take it upon themselves to come up with a twelve minute sermon that accomplishes the task.  I’ll admit it, I struggled with it too this week.  I really wish there was a simple, biblical way to fully explain the doctrine of the Trinity, but the reality is God is bigger than our wisdom can fathom and there is more to say about God than any of us can bear.  As I read through the lessons and realized that even Jesus held back at times, I breathed a little easier, knowing that maybe having a full understanding of the Trinity isn’t what’s important. Without the self-inflicted pressure to adequately describe and suitably amaze you with my knowledge of the difference between homoousious and homoiousious, I, and preachers all around the globe, have been set free to instead tell you about the equally mind boggling love of God as revealed in three persons of one substance: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the fifth consecutive week, our Gospel lesson takes place during Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  Jesus has laid some pretty difficult teaching on their shoulders.  He’s predicted that one of the twelve will betray him.  He’s told Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the night is over.  He’s promised that the world will hate them just as the world has hated Jesus.  On top of all that, he says to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…”  What an unfair thing to say to someone.  What more can their possibly be, Jesus?  We can’t bear what you’ve already told us, why hold back now?  Just tell us plainly.

From past experience with these eleven guys, Jesus knows that the events of the next 24 hours will be more than his disciples can bear.  Each time he’s predicted his death and resurrection to them, they’ve freaked out.  The first time, Peter flat out told him he was wrong.  The second time, the whole group broke out into an argument about which one of them was the greatest.  The last time, James and John took it as a chance to angle for better positions in his will.  Jesus knows that the disciples are going to fail him spectacularly over the coming days, and yet he loves them so deeply that he chooses to hold back, to let them deal with the impending grief, and to allow the Spirit of truth come in behind and rebuild them as apostles of the risen Jesus.  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…”  Jesus had already promised his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just a few moments earlier, he told them that when he leaves, the Father will send another Helper, a Comforter and Advocate, to come alongside them.  There too, he calls this Helper “the Spirit of truth.”  This Spirit will come, Jesus says, to lead the disciples into all the  truth that right now is too much for them to bear.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived in power and might like wind and flame and a cacophony of sound, and while that Pentecostal experience gets most of the publicity, it certainly wasn’t the first time the Spirit was at work in the world.  If Jesus’ promise to his disciples is true, then the Spirit of truth was with them at the moment of his death.  The Spirit of truth was there to comfort the disciples in their grief, even if they couldn’t realize it.  The Spirit of truth was there to help the disciples come to grips with the amazing story that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, even if the news was too much for them to handle.  The Spirit of truth was there as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven and wondered what on earth was going to happen next.  And the Spirit of truth continued to be present to them every moment of every day as they went about their work of sharing the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a world that was hungry and angry and confused all at once.

The Spirit of truth is still present in the lives of the disciples of Jesus today, revealing the truth of God’s unfailing love slowly, over the course of a lifetime, at a pace that is manageable for us to handle because if we’re really honest with ourselves, many of us have a list of questions that we want to ask God when we get to heaven.  I know I do.  I want to know if all dogs go to heaven.  I want to know why the doctrine of the Trinity is so dog gone hard to understand.  [I want to know why that high g just before the third stanza of Canticle 13 gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.]  I want to know why bad things happen to good people.  I especially want to know why good things happen to bad people.  There are a lot of things that I want to know about the overwhelming fullness of God’s love for me and for people I wish God didn’t love so much, but I can’t bear it yet, which is why I’m thankful that God loves me enough to send the Spirit of truth to guide me into all truth… slowly… not all at once… but in due time.

In two weeks, I’ll head off to Sewanee, Tennessee for my fifth and final year of doctoral studies at the School of Theology.  It’ll be my eighth year of seminary studies.  In the course of those eight years, I’ve learned just enough about the love of God to know that there is still a whole lot more to know.  I could spend the rest of my life digging through books, reading what the greatest minds to ever think have to say about God.  I could sit in dozens of seminar classes, arguing deep theological truths until I was blue in the face.  I could write thousands of pages on the love of God, but nothing will be a better teacher than the Spirit of truth who Jesus promised and the Father sent.  Knowing everything there is to know about God pales in comparison to knowing God as revealed in the creating, loving, and sustaining Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As we celebrate Trinity Sunday, thankfully, we can do so without getting all caught up in how  the whole three in one and one in three thing works. Instead, let’s invite the Spirit of truth to lead us into the fullness of the truth of God’s love for us and for all that the Father has created and the Son came to redeem.  Let’s let the Spirit reveal that love to us in God’s time.  Let’s be patient, and trust that knowing God is far superior to knowing about God.  There really is way more to say this Trinity Sunday, way more than any of us can bear, but sometimes, a simple word of love is more than enough.  May God bless you with a profound experience of the truth of his deep and abiding love today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.  Amen.

The Prodigal Father – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


 

​Words are important. You might expect to hear that from a guy who loves to write and does word history studies just for fun, but I think even if you aren’t my special brand of weird, we can all understand the power and importance of words.  Of course, some words are more important than others.  In the course of this roughly 1,400 word sermon, not every word is of utmost importance.  I didn’t labor, thesaurus in hand, to make sure I chose the correct word every single time, but there are places where a careful choice has to be made.  This is especially true when it comes to titles.  The title of a book, movie, poem, or even a sermon can be the difference between a smash hit, and something that never sees the light of day.  Take for example, the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho.  If it had been released under its original name, Wimpy, I can’t imagine it having the same punch.  What if Titanic had been called The Ship of Dreams or instead of Casablanca, it stayed Everybody Comes to Rick’s.[1]  It just doesn’t have the same appeal.  Most Bibles these days are chock full of titles; breaking down each section into an easily consumable, bite-sized morsel.  The problem with those titles is that they often begin the process of interpretation, cueing our brains to pay attention to certain details while ignoring others.  Today’s Gospel lesson is a prime example.  Pick up any Bible you can find, open it to Luke 15:11 and you’ll find the title: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is one of Jesus’ best known parables.  It is so well known, that it has its own colloquialism: “the prodigal returns,” which I think means, one who has left has now come back.

How does our understanding of this story change if we know that prodigal doesn’t mean wandering or straying away, but in fact means “wastefully extravagant?”  Coming from that perspective, the Prodigal Son isn’t a story about a son who has gone away and returned, but the given title focuses our attention on the how the younger son spent his wealth on wasteful extravagance.  He squandered his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and given the title; I guess that is supposed to be the focus of our attention.  This creates a nice moral lesson and a fabulously easy, albeit oddly specific sermon: don’t tell your dad you wish he was dead, take your inheritance prematurely, and waste it on immoral living.  I feel like maybe that’s too easy.  I wonder if perhaps whoever titled this story had their own daddy issues, and decided to project them onto all of us.

If I were in charge of putting titles in the Bible, I would call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father because it seems to me, that if anyone in this story is wastefully extravagant, it is the dad, who, on four different occasions, totally ignores the social conventions of his day to show his love to his sons with prodigality.  It all starts with that horribly awkward conversation when the younger son walks up to his dad and says, essentially, “You’re dead to me.  I’d like my share of the inheritance now.”  Social convention would say to tell this young man he can either fall back in line or leave without anything, but dad doesn’t do that.  Instead, he complies with his son’s request, which is no easy feat in first century Palestine.  The man couldn’t call his stock broker, sell a few hundred shares, and hand his son some cash.  Wealth was measured in land and livestock.  To give his son the money he wanted, the father would have to sell off his property, which would mean a smaller farm, which would mean fewer slaves, which would mean a general downturn in the economic stability of his household and therefore the whole community would suffer.  Out of prodigal love for his son, and a desire to let him make his own mistakes and learn his own life lessons, the father sells it off, hands his son a wad of cash, and with a heart that must have been shattered into pieces, watched him leave for a far away land.

Jesus infers that the man never really left that spot on the edge of his property.  For as long as his son is gone, he continued to watch for him, hoping and praying that one day he would return safely.  We don’t know how long it took the son to squander his wealth, or how many months of feeding slop to the pigs he endured before he decided to come back home, but you can imagine it was quite a while.  No matter how long it took, when that day came, and without care or concern as to whether his son was truly repentant or not, the father was there waiting.  While his son was still a long way off, he caught a glimpse, and out of that same prodigal love, he disregarded all social convention, hitched up his tunic, and took off running.  Men of his status didn’t run; they certainly didn’t run after sons who wished them dead, and they absolutely didn’t embrace them or welcome them with the kiss of peace, but that’s exactly what he did.

The love of the father was so over the top that he threw a party for his son who once was lost.  Social convention said that the townsfolk would gather when the son returned, but not for a party.  Instead, they’d take part in a gesasah ceremony.  “They would gather around him, breaking jars of corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village.  His [re]entry… would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions.”[2]  Instead, dad’s prodigal love meant he killed the fatted calf, brought out the good wine, and invited the whole town to celebrate the return of his youngest son.

When word came that his older son refused to enter the party, the prodigal dad once more defied social convention to show his love for a son who didn’t much deserve it.  Instead of sending a servant out to deal with his son or simply demanding that his eldest come join the party, the father leaves the celebration to plead with his son to join in rejoicing that his brother who was dead is now alive; was lost, but now is found.  In the end, however, the same prodigal love that let his youngest son walk away would leave his first born standing outside of the party, sulking over the fact that his father’s love really was wastefully extravagant.

The Parable of the Prodigal Father isn’t a fable that invites us to not be immoral like the younger son.  Even though the story is directed at the grumpy Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowed, he doesn’t invite his listeners to not be stubborn like the older brother.  It isn’t a story teaching us how to forgive those who have hurt us.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son really isn’t about us at all.  It is about God, and how God’s love is wastefully extravagant; being poured out over and over again on folks like you and me: sinners, tax collectors, spoiled brat second children and slavish rule following firstborns.  In sending  his only Son, God the Father disregards all social convention, all the ways in which we think he should have fixed our mess, and all the plans and schemes of human beings, to show us his prodigal love, poured out in blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus, dead on the cross.  Words matter and the two words at the heart of this story are prodigal love: God’s wastefully extravagant, self-giving love for every human being who was once dead, and thanks to Jesus is now alive in the Spirit, who was once lost, but thanks to God’s amazing grace, is now found.  Amen.

[1] http://www.salon.com/2014/04/08/24_famous_movies_were_almost_called_something_completely_different_partner

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Prodigal-Son-Alyce-McKenzie-03-04-2013