Deja vu

I try not to complain about preaching for couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  The process of prayer, study, writing, editing, and delivering a sermon is one of the best parts of my vocation.  Two, because I’m spoiled.  With the exception of a couple of 2 to 3 month stints due to sabbaticals or health issues, in twelve years of ordained ministry, I’ve never worked as a solo priest.  There has always been someone (or sometwo) with whom I share the preaching load.  That being said, this morning as I opened the lessons for Sunday knowing that I’m not the one preaching, I had one of those, “are we here again already” moments.  It seems like I just preached on Luke 15:1-10.

The reality of the Lectionary cycle is that this lesson hasn’t been read on a Sunday in three years, so if I have dealt with this lesson recently, it was probably at a Wednesday service, but there is something about the Lost Parables that is so familiar, it really can cause deja vu.  It doesn’t take but a few words past the grumbling Pharisees to realize where we are and to elicit a quick and somewhat emotional response.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”  I know where this is going… “does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”  None Jesus.  Not a single person in their right mind would do this.  The one dumb lost sheep is not worth the potential cost of losing 99 others that you have to leave alone in the wilderness, subjected to the elements, to wolves, and to thieves, to find it.  Same goes for the old lady who spends more on the party she throws on finding one coin than the value of that coin.

slide14-1024x576

It just isn’t something that people do.  That’s why these stories have such stickiness.  And it’s exactly Jesus’ intent.  Nobody does such extravagant things over finding that which has been lost, but God does.  All of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents, even more than the joy that is experienced when 99 righteous do their righteous things because Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  Here’s the rub.  All of us are lost.  There is no herd of 99 good sheep hanging around dutifully waiting on their shepherd.  All of us are, as the old hymn goes, “prone to wander.”  So it is that we should all rejoice at how foolish God is to leave the safety of heaven, come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to find every last dumbass, self-serving, wandering sheep.  Even you and even me.

Advertisements

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.”

2019-05-23 06.20.52

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.

An Unsettling Story

The Sermon starts at about 6:45


As I’ve told you before, I love parables.  If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit.  I love how simple they are.  How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths.  I love how impossible they are.  How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn.  I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end.  I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.

I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road.  Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true.  Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”  Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story.  The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward.  The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead.  He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey.  One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation.  In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling.  What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.

The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back.  The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories.  Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners.  Not only that, but he was eating with them.  They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus.  The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it.  In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found.  One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it.  When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it.  When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate.  One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home.  We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.

In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents.  In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned.  Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance.  Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk.  In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text.  Notice how it all plays out.  After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine.  Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time.  Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good.  The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs.  Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating?  Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.”  He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat.  So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly.  This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling.  Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions?  Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more?  Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.

As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured.  The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him.  You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party.  But this son of yours.  He treated you as if you were dead.  He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?”  Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship.  He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again.  But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party.  The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house.  Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in?  Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.

The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God.  The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found.  The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party.  The older brother was indignant about it.  God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place.  There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn.  Amen.

What is your Reward?

44b449b5fd0fa8480f7734f2b1a6c33a

Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

Vestiges of Rite I

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of my GOE scores and comments arriving by USPS.  I can still remember the power that silly day held over so many of us.  In the two years I studied at VTS before I took the General Ordination Exams, we were all but told to walk on egg shells around the seniors on GOE score day.  These Exams held our futures, and whether we passed or not could mean huge delays in the ordination process.  Of course, by the time January 2007 rolled around, several dioceses had started ordaining folks to the transitional diaconate in the fall semester of their senior year, thereby neutering the power of the GOEs for many.  As I am wont to do, I engaged in some of the anxiety around it all, after all, I wouldn’t be ordained a deacon until after I had successfully graduated from seminary, but I was also keenly away that the GOEs were wearing no clothes.

Rather than ramp up the anxiety machine by making the next generation of GOE takers scared to death to talk to me, I immediately blogged my scores, comments and all, because honestly, like any comprehensive professional certification exam, the whole thing is process of market manipulation and hazing, and ain’t nobody got time for that in the church.  Back in those days, scores were 1-5, with anything less than a 3 was considered a failing grade.  The Liturgy and Church Music question my year asked us to compare Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching our Worship to Eucharistic Prayer I from Rite I in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  I got a 3 and this was part of the comments, “The limited use of theological terminology inhibits the paper’s capacity to compare and contrast the two prayers.”  So, I guess I answered the question barely, which was enough to pass.

Anyway, my focus in that essay was the basic posture from which the prayer is made.  In EOW, the anthropology is quite high.  We come before God almost in our post-resurrection state.  In contrast, Rite I’s basic anthropology is our sinful wretchedness.  I used to think that EOW missed the boat and Rite I was way more accurate a read of humanity, but over time, I’ve started to realize that depending on they day, sometimes, we might need to be bolstered up in our belovedness rather than weighed down in our brokenness.  That being said, it is helpful to occasionally be reminded that God is God and we are not; that God is good, and by and large, we are not.  Which is why I’m grateful for the collect for Epiphany 6/Proper 1.  This prayer, which dates from the mid-eighth century, is quite clear in where humanity falls on the goodness meter.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,  “The collect reminds us that without the grace of God we can neither will nor do any good thing nor be pleasing to God.”  This certainly doesn’t jive with modern “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology, but let’s face it, that’s got to be ok.  If all we do is good, then there is no need for God.  It doesn’t take too long in the world today to recognize that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, and that, as Dr. Cox would remind us:

de3a352a836918124d436154655d572f

I’m grateful for the vestiges of Rite I, and for the occasional reminder that no matter how good I might think I am, I, like everyone else, am in need of a savior who can lead me into the goodness that God has planned for me.

When giftedness fails

Sunday’s New Testament lesson from 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 is a wildly underrated text, in my opinion.  Due to a weak understanding of the Holy Spirit in the Western Church, very few denominations, outside of those myopically focused on the gift of tongues, pay enough attention to the gifts of the spirit that are bestowed upon every believer in baptism.  Clergy across the spectrum scratch their heads and wonder where a good Treasurer, Sunday School Teacher, or Buildings and Grounds Chair might come from, ignoring the Scriptural reality that every baptized disciple of Jesus has special gifts, given by God, for the upbuilding of the Church.

I have probably taken close to a dozen spiritual gifts inventories over the years.  I’ve taught classes on spiritual gifts for more than 15 years.  I’ve prayed with folks who are struggling to understand where God is calling them.  In all those years, every time I even give a sniff at the idea of spiritual gifts, at the top of my list comes the gift of administration.  It, and a solid helping of hubris, are the reason I’ve never met a board meeting that I didn’t want to chair.  It is part of the reason that I felt called to parish ministry.  It is why I gain life from a good Excel spreadsheet.  And, it is how I keep my ministry from going off the rails and deep into a rabbit hole of administrivia.  Because of my ability to organize my life, I create the space to do those things I’m not as gifted in, like pastoral care, contemplative prayer practices, and the like.

So, it was with much chagrin that yesterday I realized that, of late, I have been failing to utilize my giftedness.  Instead of a nicely organized to-do list, my desk looks more like this cartoon.

clergy-desk

This CartoonChurch.com cartoon by Dave Walker originally appeared in the Church Times.

As a result, I can see where I’ve been less than effective and efficient in my ministry as head cheerleader and encourager here at Christ Church, Bowling Green.

I know that I’m not alone in falling into the occasional period of failed giftedness.  Each of us will experience those times when something else take priority, when we feel like we are running from one smoldering fire to the next, and when the things that give us life fall by the wayside.  All of a sudden, you look around and realize that the everything else of life has been sucking you dry, and you need to, if only for a moment or two, tap back into that gift, drink from the well of the Holy Spirit, and find refreshment and renewal.  The Tempter would tell you this need to use your gifts is selfish, but the truth of the matter is that these gifts are given, as Paul writes, “for the common good.”  When we don’t use them, it isn’t only to our detriment, but it can cause the wider church to miss its calling as the agent of God’s reconciling love.

Where are you gifted?  How is God calling you to use those gifts?  What gives you life?  Occasionally, we all need to ask ourselves these questions in order to ensure that each one of us is fulfilling our God-given role in the Kingdom.

The Calling of a Prodigal God

THEGOODBOOKCLUB_Horizontal

It is week five of the Good Book Club, and we are more than halfway through Luke’s Gospel, with an eye toward Acts during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Next week, Lent’s penultimate week, will be Holy Week in the GBC, but before we get there, we have some famous parables, including the one commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” from which this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question comes.

Prodigal (n) – a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way – is often used to describe the younger son in the well known parable, but what if the point of this parable is the prodigality of the father?  Tell of a time you were aware of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.


Recently, I have found myself in several different conversations about call.  It is a hazard of the job, I suppose.  For some, it is the early inklings of a call to ordained ministry.  For others, it is the frustrations of the innumerable midway points in the process that make progress impossible according to physics.  For a few, these conversations have revolved around the second way we discuss call in the Episcopal Church: finding a job.  See, once you have, with God’s [significant] help navigated the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry and been trained for that vocation, is discerning a call to a position, or more colloquially, a job.

In the past, that process hasn’t really been about call.  The Bishop, to whom you are beholden throughout the process, would often simply place seminary graduates in congregations that needed holes filled.  Certainly, there was some discernment involved, but three people to fill three holes means everybody gets placed, whether they are all a good fit or not.  In this system, the job was usually for at time-certain, often two years, and then the next call process would commence.  Except, when you know your paychecks will cease on a certain date, you don’t have time really let the Spirit work, and so discernment can quickly dissipate while the search for a job takes over.  In many cases, it wasn’t until the third call that someone really had the chance to experience the fullness of discernment and the joyful nature of call.

When I think about the prodigality of God, I’m often reminded of my own difficulty with call.  It was the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of my senior year of seminary when I found out that I would not be placed.  What felt like an earth shaking moment in which the rug fell out from under me, has, in hindsight, been a moment wherein I relish in God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It didn’t fell good at the time, not unlike, I’m sure, the younger son returning home to his father’ house, but I quickly realized the gift that was waiting for me.  As I moved from discerning a vocational call to discerning a call to a position, I became aware of how joyous that process can be.  As I’ve said many times in the last ten+ years, riding the wave of the Spirit is a whole lot of fun.

I am grateful, everyday, to know what call feels like.  To have experienced it in TKT’s living room in Foley in April of 2007 and in a rental car in Bowling Green in October of 2016 is a gift of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It is my prayer for all in discernment, whether they will graduate from a seminary with an MDiv or a diocesan school for ministry with a certificate, that they will, sooner rather than later, get to experience the same gift and blessing.

And, lest this post be another point in the accusation of my penchant for clericalism, I would note that I think this type of discernment isn’t exclusive to those of us in the professional class of ministry.  When God’s call is followed, in our work and in our churches, the experience of God’s grace can be overwhelming, in a good way.  May God bless you with the reckless extravagance as you take your place in the building up of the Kingdom of God.


Blog Force Participant