The Calling of a Prodigal God

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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.


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Why the wilderness?

This is the sermon that I wrote to be preached on Lent 1, Year B, 2018.  Because of a death in the family, I will be away from the Christ Church pulpit, and so it will go unpreached.


You’ve probably seen the picture by now.  It has been posted all over social media.  Every news outlet on the planet has shown it.  It was taken by Joel Auerbach of the Associated Press and it is of the mother of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, sobbing, embracing another woman who is also in tears, with the familiar black mark of an ashen cross on her forehead.

Parkland School Shooting Joel Auerbach - AP

It is perhaps the most poignant portrait of anguish that I have ever seen.  Having been reminded earlier in the day of her own mortality and need for God, hours later, this faithful woman found herself standing in the wilderness, lost, and in search of hope.  It has been less than a month since western Kentucky had to endure its own wilderness moment when a fifteen-year-old student at Marshall County High School opened fire in the commons area before school began on January 23rd.  There were no ashen crosses that day, but the images are unsettlingly familiar by now.  Students running for their lives away from their school, a place that is supposed to be one of the last remaining safe havens.  And parents, their eyes somehow both keenly focused as they search for their children among the mass of humanity and yet also blankly staring into space, in shock, and unable to take in what they are seeing.

Of all the photographs I’ve seen after a school shooting, and by God, I’ve seen way too many, the image of this Parkland, Florida mother with the sign of the cross on her forehead just will not go away.  Like most priests, I ashed my fair share of people on Wednesday.  Those who came to the altar rail were in various stages of life.  Some came at 7am, eager to rush off to work.  Others came at noon, as their schedule allowed.  Some were older, a couple were so small as to be held in the arms of a parent or grandparent.  As those familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoed through the Nave, each of us was invited in that moment to meet God in the wilderness.  For most of us, that wilderness is a creation of our own imagination.  It is the wilderness of no chocolate or red wine.  It is the wilderness of extra Bible readings or longer prayer times.  It is the wilderness of Lenten fasts and disciplines, wherein we meet God on our own terms.  The mother in that photograph began her day thinking she would be entering a wilderness of her own design, when, without warning, she found herself driven well beyond her comfort zone, out – way, way out – into a wilderness of fear, unknowing, and agony.

I’ve often wondered why it is that after his baptism, Jesus finds himself flung by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness.  It raises all sorts of difficult theological questions that God would hand God the Son over to the Devil for 40 days of temptation.  All sorts of bad theology has come out of Jesus’ wilderness experience.  It usually rears its ugly head in the aftermath of a tragedy and sounds something like, “Everything happens for a reason.”  “God has a plan.”  “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  All of which is absolute garbage.  Sure, nothing can happen totally without reason, but sometimes that reason has nothing to do with the people affected by the thing that is happening.  Sometimes that reason is greedy politicians or a angry young man or decades of doing nothing in the face of actual threats to our children.  Yes, God does have a plan, but I can assure you that God’s plan does not include the gunning down of 17 innocent people in a high school in Florida.  And if you look into the face of that mother, you can be damn sure that she’s smack dab in the middle of more than anyone should be asked to handle.

As she stands in the middle of the wilderness, flung there not by the Spirit of God, but rather by the devil and the powers of hell, the last thing this woman, or any of the families affected by any of the more than 270 school shootings that have happened since Columbine needs is a platitude about God’s plan.[1]  What they really need in that moment is for God to be there, walking alongside them in the grief, shock, and pain.  This is, I think, why Jesus is flung into the wilderness immediately following his baptism, so that he can be there when each of us finds ourselves in the wilderness because of illness, natural disaster, violence, abuse, harassment, degradation, or whatever else the devil and the powers of evil might throw our way.

On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the Parkland shooting, I was in the car early, listening to Golic and Wingo on ESPN Radio as they interviewed Stugotz, a sports radio personality who lives within walking distance of Margory Stoneman Douglas High School.  They asked him what the feeling was in the community.  His answer reminded me that because of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, God is able to understand what these families are feeling.  It also reminded me that as the body of Christ, we are invited to stand there as well, to bring the love of God to those who are lost, wandering in the wilderness.  “Some of the acts of kindness I saw yesterday,” he said, “you know… it takes something like this to get us to act like that… Where we are ok with someone cutting us off.  We are ok with a car parked in the middle of the road because it is a parent looking for their kid.  We’re ok getting out of the car, on our own, to help a kid looking for his parents, which I saw countless people doing yesterday with kids that weren’t even their own.  You’d like to think that’s how we’d always treat people… The way people acted yesterday, I wish that was the way people would act forever.”[2]

According to Mark, Jesus didn’t have any choice in whether he would enter the wilderness or not.  He was thrown there by the Spirit and spent forty days living in that godforsaken place so that the next time someone found themselves in the wilderness, it couldn’t be godforsaken.  Jesus was there, wrapping his arms of love around those two mothers, gripped in fear and sadness.  Jesus was there, helping terrified children find their families.  Jesus was there, holding the wounded and the dying in their hour of need.  Jesus was there. Jesus is here, even as we feel lost and alone in a wilderness of anger, fear, and grief.  And Jesus invites us to be the body of Christ by entering into the wilderness where others find themselves to offer God’s compassion and love.

[1] Lauren Pearle “School Shootings Since Columbine: By the Numbers” ABCNews, 2/12/2016, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/school-shootings-columbine-numbers/story?id=36833245)

[2] Stugotz, interviewed on Golic and Wingo 2/15/2018, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://www.espn.com/espnradio/play?id=22451096)

The faithfulness of God

Way back, when I was in seminary, I studied Greek.  While I continue to use it occasionally in sermon prep, I couldn’t tell you the alphabet by rote and I don’t remember many of the rules for conjugation.  What I do remember are key details, things which help us understand a deeper meaning that isn’t present in the English translation, and more importantly, I remember how and where to look things up.  One of the memories that floods back in occasionally has to do with prepositions and how they can mean many different things in Greek.  For example, when we read of “faith in Christ” it could also mean “faith of Christ,” such that we are saved not by our own ability to put our trust in someone who lived, died, and rose again 2,000 years ago, but because of the faithfulness of that same person to live, die, and rise again.

This came flooding back into my consciousness this morning as I desperately looked for something new to write about.  Now in our fourth (fifth? I’ve honestly lost count) week of apocalyptic parables and imagery, it seems difficult to find a new way to riff on Jesus’ command to “stay awake.”  As I read the lesson from 1st Corinthians, I was drawn to this image of God being the faithful one who calls us into relationship.

As the Biblical story unfolds, there are a hundred or more places where God could have (should have?) given up on humanity.  As the Eucharistic Prayer puts it, “again and again, you called us to return,” but due to our own pride and/or apathy, we have repeatedly failed to live into the dream of God.  Sometimes, it was whole nations that failed.  More often, it is the hearts of individuals who stray from the Kingdom of God.  Yet, despite our ongoing resistance, God is faithful, inviting us back into relationship, and always ready to receive us into the arms of God’s saving embrace.

Advent seems like an appropriate time to spend sometime prayerfully considering the faithfulness of God.  As we prepare ourselves for the gift of salvation, born on Christmas Day, it makes sense to focus less on what role we take in that salvation, and to be mindful that it is by God’s steadfast faithfulness that, in the fullness of time, the Son comes into the world.  It can be hard, the whole “it isn’t about me” thing, but in a season devoted to preparation, it seems the right thing to do.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth – Oh My!

I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse.  Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment.  It is there that we get fidgety.

Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there.  I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable.  Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go.  But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.

Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew.  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Six of those occurrences are in Matthew.  We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away.  Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey.  Three times it is combined with the outer darkness.  Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire.  The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are.  The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.

This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it.  Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications.  Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God.  Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.

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Another chance to bring up our poorly worded value statement. Huzzah!

Without judgment, there is no true grace.  While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.

Holy and Blessed

You might recall that last week, we heard the LORD instruct Moses to inform the Hebrews that they “should be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”   You might also remember that I read that commandment from God in a pretty hard-line sort of way. We ought take these words from God seriously, and strive for holiness, while understanding that it is simply impossible to do it on our own.  I doubt that the guys-drinking-scotch-in-a-smoke-filled-room who settled on the Revised Common Lectionary had it in mind, but this Track Two Old Testament lesson for Proper 25, Year A prepares us nicely for the Gospel lesson on the transferred Feast of All Saints’.

This Sunday, we return to the Sermon on the Mount and lesson we heard way back in Epiphany.  Jesus, seeing that a crowd is beginning to gather around him and his message, hits the pause button and invites his closest companions to come up the mountainside for a crash course in the basics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The lesson appointed for All Saints’ (BCP and RCL) is the opening salvo in that message of hope, grace, and love, and it is, quite simply, as mind-blowingly impossible as last week’s mountaintop conversation between God and Moses.

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This week, instead of focusing on holiness, the message of God is pointed toward blessedness.  Sometimes translated as “happy,” this ideal that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is a helpful one as we consider what it means to be included in the list of the saints of God.  We who are called to be holy, with God’s help, are, also by the grace of God, able to find happiness and contentment, to receive blessedness, when we find ourselves poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering for righteousness.  That is, when we are most aware that the world is not as God intended it to be, we are also the most blessed, able to see the world through the eyes of God.  Equally so, when we are merciful, pure in heart, working for peace, and even suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, we find ourselves blessed.  In our work to fulfill the baptismal covenant (All Saints’ is a proper Baptismal feast, after all), we find the purpose for which we were created.

As with holiness, blessedness is not something we can accomplish on our own, which might be the first and only real lesson we need to learn about sainthood.  It is all grace, which, come to think of it, would work quite well for those who are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg Door as well.

Simply Impossible

Yesterday, I suggested that Jesus’ Summary of the Law – love God and love neighbor – was impossibly simple.  Today, as I read the Levitical foundation for the second Great Commandment, I’m realizing that it might go even deeper than that.  Forget impossibly simple, these words from God to Moses really seem simply impossible.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Be holy?  Are you kidding me, God?  Have you ever actually met people?  If you’ll pardon the modestly NSFW language in the following meme, this pretty much summarizes the human experience.

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So, what are we to do with this simply impossible commandment from God?  I think the first thing we need to do is come to grips with the reality that our vision of holiness is probably a bit far fetched.  The Hebrew word translated at holy literally means to be set apart.  This is the goal of the Levitical Law, a way to set apart the Hebrew people as chosen by God.  By living to a higher standard of purity, hospitality, and religious observance than their neighbors, the Hebrews could show themselves as closer to the ideal of humanity.  When we take this ideal too far, we come up with the image of holiness as poverty-avowing Franciscan life that is in conflict with nothing and no one.

What is more real, however, is the understanding that the Law is impossible for humans to live up to.  Noting Dr. Cox above, human beings will often choose to be inhospitable, lazy, snarky, or whatever, not because of some malice, but simply because we have the ability to choose and the decisions we make are often self-centered.  Once we come to grips with God’ simply impossible demands, we can move to the next step, which is the realization that the only way holiness – set-apartness – is possible, is with God’s help.  We cannot choose to be more loving, but God can change our hearts.  We cannot choose to be more generous, but God can change our hearts.  We cannot choose to to be more active in our faith, but God can change our hearts.

The gift of the impossibly simple and the simply impossible is God’s grace in the midst of the impossibility.  Be open to the Spirit.  Be ready to be surprised by grace.  Be holy, not because you are capable of it, in and of yourself, but because God is.

Our place in line

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An unused #SMS17 comes in handy

Our culture lives out a interesting interpretation of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Despite the most coveted job in any elementary school being that of line leader, by the time we reach adulthood, something switches, and somehow, being in the tail end of a procession becomes the place of honor.  The picture above was my view from the tail end of the procession at the 10 o’clock service yesterday.  Led by the cross, the symbol of Christ’s passion and our salvation, flanked by two candles, which remind us that the light of Christ is present whenever two or three are gathered, the choir, server, the Gospel bearer, Eucharistic minister, ministry intern, two deacons, and myself paraded into the chancel as we began our worship of God.  As the Celebrant, my place was at the tail end of the line.  In the academy, this “pride of place” often goes to professors with the longest tenure and then Deans.  At a wedding, the bride takes up the rear of the procession.  So often, it seems that we would honor those who bring up the rear.

As I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that, my place in the end of the line isn’t the place of honor, but really is the right place for me to be.  As part of his ongoing back and forth with the religious leadership, Jesus offers something of a riddle to his interlocutors.   After they answer correctly, or so Matthew would lead us to believe (but that’s for another post), Jesus sums up his teaching with these words, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I’m not sure why, but I felt led to look into the words that are translated as “are going… ahead.”  It turns out it is one word, proagousin.  The primary Strong’s definition for this word is stronger than “to go ahead,” being rendered as “to lead forward.”  My mind immediately went back to that procession yesterday, the letters that precede and follow my name, and the reality that in that procession, I was being led into the kingdom of God by children, by sinners, by gentiles, and by the grace of God.  Those who lead the procession into the Kingdom of Heaven have the pride of place because they are the ones who recognize, most fully, their need for forgiveness.  Those of us who are professional ministers can often forget that we aren’t the sum total of the compliments we hear in the receiving line.  Rather, our place at the tail end of the procession is often the result of our own failure to remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are in the lineup at all.