God’s Heart

       Author, Elizabeth Stone, tech pioneer, Steve Jobs, and my mother are all quoted as saying, “Having a child is like choosing to let your heart walk outside your body for the rest of your life.”  It seems Blessed Mary knew this reality all too well.  It began on the night of Jesus’ birth as shepherds came rushing into the cattle stall where the holy family was attempting to rest, bursting with the good news they had received from angels who appeared in their fields with trumpet and song.  Forty days later, Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple for her ritual purification and to dedicate her first born son to the Lord God, when a man whom she had never met, took the child into his arms and declared him to be “the salvation of all people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,” even as he promised to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well.  Less than two years after that, three wise men – magicians and priests from the East – came to visit Jesus armed with gifts of gold, suitable for a king, and frankincense and myrrh, symbols of death.  Meanwhile, her husband, Joseph, had a dream in which he was told to flee his homeland and take his family to Egypt to protect them. After a while bouncing around the Egyptian countryside, and almost as quickly as they were told to leave, Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus were once again told to pack up everything and return to Israel.  Instead of settling back in their old home in Judea, they made their way to Nazareth in order to protect their son from the powers-that-be who feared him and wanted him out of their lives.  Later, at age twelve, Jesus scared Mary to death, having stayed behind in the Temple while the family caravanned back to Nazareth.

       By the time we get to today’s Gospel lesson, Mary has already experienced a lifetime of worry over her son, whom she knew would be different since before he was even conceived.  This morning, we encounter a now thirty-year-old Jesus who has been quite busy collecting disciples, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Our lesson tells the story of Jesus’ first trip back home.  Between the crowd that was following him around the Galilean countryside and the crowd of interested locals, so many people came out to see Jesus that he couldn’t even move his arms to stuff some hummus in his face.  They were pressing in upon him so intensely that Mary began to fear for his life.  Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version says that his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” which is actually a pretty bad translation.  What the Greek actually connotes is that his family came to grab him, and they told the crowds, “He has lost his mind.”  One could write a whole book on Mark 3:21. There is double entendre aplenty in here.  The word that the NRSV translates as “restrain” also means “to keep careful hold of.”  The word often translated as “lost his mind” also means “amazed.”  His family said that he was crazy, but did they really believe it?  I can’t help but wonder if Mary saw all that was happening to her son and ran out to do whatever she could to save him.

       There is no question in the text, on the other hand, about what the Scribes were up to.  They had no intention of trying to protect Jesus from the masses.  Instead, it seems they were dead set on stirring the crowd up into a frenzy.  When you have the truth on your side, pound the facts.  When you don’t, you pound the table and call people names.  The Scribes didn’t ease their way into name calling either, but when straight for the jugular by calling him Satan.  “He’s Beezebul! He’s able to cast out demons because he is the chief among them!”  These are not the words of someone who came to engage in peaceful discussion.  It is clear that what the Scribes were hoping would happen was that someone or some mob would rid them of this meddling rabbi, but Jesus knew his time had not yet come and was having none of this.

       At its core, Jesus rejects the premise of the Scribes.  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, how can Satan cast out Satan?  It just doesn’t work.  By way of a parable, Jesus does show that he believes that the powers of evil are strong, and that he sees his calling as the one who was sent to defeat Satan once and for all.  The Father sent his only begotten son to tie up the powerful forces of Satan and to plunder the houses of evil – in empire, in business, in religion, and in families.  Jesus is clear that the fight that had already begun between him and the forces of evil, a fight that started when he was only a child, will continue, but he already knows that he will win, and in so doing, he will redeem almost all people back into right relationship with God.

Almost all, and here’s where things get particularly tricky, because of this unforgivable sin business.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear this warning from Jesus, I find myself checking my receipts.  Have I ever blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  There was that one time in seminary, when we were all sharing at a class retreat, and I said, “sometimes I hate the Holy Spirit because I get called to do things that aren’t easy.”  Is that unforgivable?  I really hope not.  Is Jesus talking to his family and the Scribes alike in this cryptic message?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think the eternal sin that Jesus warns the crowd about is the sin of assuming you are right; the sin of an intractable spirit; the sin of arrogance.  The Scribes, like so many who have come from positions of power and privilege over the centuries, simply assume that they are right, and Jesus is wrong.  There is no willingness to listen, learn, or grow.  Having been invited to receive the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide to God, they have said, “no thank you, we don’t need it.”  There is no saving those who don’t think they need to be saved.  Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich (powerful, privileged) person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who approach the Kingdom of God with humility, who embrace the invitation to follow Jesus, no matter what sins or blasphemies they might stumble into, can find forgiveness because they seek it.  Jesus’ family might not fully understand what he is up to, and they might let their worry overcome them from time to time, but they aren’t beyond redemption, and neither are you or me.  All who are willing to lay down their pride and be challenged by following Jesus can have access to the Kingdom of God, and can even help, from time to time, plunder the houses of evil.  Which is why we pray this morning that the God from whom all good proceeds, might grant us an open spirit to think what is right, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do so.  It isn’t always easy to know what is right, but with a spirit of humility and a willingness to follow the leading of the Spirit, we can avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that there is no longer room for God in our own little kingdoms.  When we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us think and do those things that are right, we are able to more fully follow the will of God, and, as promised by Jesus himself, have entrance into the family of Christ.  In Creation, God chose to let God’s heart walk the earth for all of eternity.  As children of God and members of the family of Christ, we are God’s heart in the world.  We must be careful not to allow our hearts to become hard, but rather, to be open to the ways in which God’s love for the whole world will be poured out through each of us.  Amen.

Fear and Awe

As Jesus taught in the Synagogue at Capernaum, the congregation was “astounded” (NRSV).  After Jesus cast out the demon from the man with the unclean spirit, they were “amazed” (NRSV).  Mark uses two different Greek words to describe the reaction. of the crowds, presumably to point out that while both were reactions of awe, they came in different forms.  This makes sense to me.  The reaction I might have to a excellent teacher is going to look markedly different than the reaction I might have to seeing an exorcism first hand.  Both are awe inspiring, but one is perhaps more visceral.

As 21st century Christians, we’ve become pretty comfortable with awe being our go-to reaction to the divine.  Who doesn’t love to sing “Our God is an Awesome God”?

What we’re decidedly less comfortable with, however, is the fear of the Lord, which is what makes our recitation of Psalm 111 this Sunday so delightfully counter cultural.  The closing line of this instructional, acrostic poem of praise reads, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: all those who practice it have a good understanding.  His praise endures forever.”  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.  For the ancient Hebrews who sang this psalm, who used to it teach their children in the way of the LORD, that fear wasn’t about the Saw movie franchise or the feeling you get just before a roller coaster.  The fear of the LORD is the awe you feel in his presence.  It comes when we realize that God is so wholly other, so utterly holy, so unimaginably loving and desires a relationship with each of us.  Sure, they were afraid that they couldn’t handle the holiness of God and that it might wipe them out entirely,

but if that’s all we think of when we read “the fear of the LORD” in the Old Testament, we do a great disservice to the chosen people of God.  Our proper approach to God is with fear and awe, recognizing the great power of God while attempting to comprehend God’s great love at the same time.  Pondering that for a while is no doubt, the beginning of wisdom.

Would you rather…

I would rather use a half-Windsor

Would you rather preach sex or evangelism this Sunday?  That’s the choice facing most preachers this week, which is why, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on a rare Old Testament sermon in the majority of lectionary-based congregations this week.  The call of Samuel is just so tempting in light of the other two lessons.  “Here I am Lord.  Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night…”

Of course, I’ve never been one to take the easy way out in the pulpit 😉 and so while we will most certainly sing everyone’s favorite ordination hymn, I’m stuck preaching evangelism this week.  It all hinges on three simple words spoken first by Jesus just prior to this Sunday’s pericope, and repeated by Philip to his friend Nathaniel, “come and see.”

I’ve been known to attempt to make evangelism seem attainable for the average church-goer.  My go-to resource for that comes from the third chapter of the First Letter of Peter, “always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you.”  I start the exercise by asking people to list the things which give them hope.  Second, I ask them to try to identify the source of that hope.  Finally, I invite them to ponder where that hope is leading them.  I then congratulate them on being evangelists.  All it takes is knowing your story and being willing to share it.  There is no need to memorize the Bible or to read Barth’s Church Dogmatics or to be an expert in apologetics.  Evangelism happens when we share our story, but in light of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I’m beginning to think that even that makes it overly complicated.

Sharing the hope that is within us will come, but the first real step in evangelism is an invitation.  Come and see.  Come and experience what it feels like to worship God in the beauty of his holiness.  Come and see what a community of faith caring for each other and the needs of the wider world looks like.  Come and join our merry band of hypocrites who are doing our best to live into the Kingdom of God.  Come and see, and then we’ll talk.  We’ll eventually get to the source of that hope, faith, care, and love, but first, just come and see what a difference Jesus Christ makes in my life.

Jesus Christ is Lord – a sermon

UPDATE: the audio is available on the Saint Paul’s Website.

There were some technical difficulties this morning, and I’m still not sure I’ll have audio to post. This week will be full of posts, so rather than wait and inundate my dear readers, I’ll go ahead and post the text of the sermon now, and hopefully update with audio tomorrow.

I’ve always had trouble with Palm Sunday, or as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer actually calls it, “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.” It is such a disjointed day, trying to capture in about an hour of liturgy, two of the major highlights in a week filled with non-stop action. Some of you remember when it wasn’t such a hodge-podge. Back when the 1928 Prayer Book was in use, the day may have been “commonly called Palm Sunday,” but following the long tradition of Cranmer’s 1549 Book, there was nothing Palm-y about it, unless you were the rare soul who spent two-and-a-half-hours attending both Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, and even then, you only heard the Triumphal Entry Gospel lesson. By the 1970s, people had stopped giving up their entire Sunday morning to attend interminably long church services. For most, the Sunday before Easter was like any other, only with a slightly longer Gospel lesson: The Passion was read, a sermon was preached, bread was broken, and everybody went home ready to take a few days off before returning on Wednesday for the Stations of the Cross. Meanwhile, liturgical historians had stumbled across fourth century evidence of ancient parades on the Sunday before Easter, in which people waved Palm Branches and remembered Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Thinking that we should do the cool things people did in the early Church, they added the Liturgy of the Palms to a service that was really about the Passion Gospel, and voila, we’ve got the disjointed mess that is “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.”
In an attempt to ease the messiness, several years ago Keith and I decided to take Holy Week seriously as a whole week. We fudged this service just a bit by pushing the Passion Gospel to the very end, making it the transition moment from our shouts of “Hosanna,” to the week-long struggle that will end with shouts of “crucify him!” No matter how much fudging we do, however, the liturgy for Palm Sunday is still, in my opinion, a disjointed mess. Like Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew’s Palm Sunday account, we attempt to straddle the majesty of the King of kings parading into Jerusalem and the “so-called” King of the Jews being whipped, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross. As I once again struggled with this awkward balancing act, I went back the lectionary and found myself drawn to the Philippians lesson for two compelling reasons. First, it reminded me of the hymn, “He is Lord,” which we sang every Sunday after communion in the somewhat charismatic parish of my youth. I can still see Father Bill standing behind the altar, arms raised high in the air as we sang, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Second, and more importantly, this beautiful mid-first century hymn about Jesus the Christ can help us embrace today’s weird mix of joy and sorrow.
We hear this lesson from Philippians 2 fresh off the high of rustling palm branches and “all glory, laud, and honor.” Jesus is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other Gospel accounts, he’s named the King of Israel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus had everything he needed to take over the Temple, overthrow the Chief Priests and mount a battle against the Romans. He was at the height of his power and authority, but he knew that military might was not his calling.
“Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” Despite his followers’ claims, the Pharisees’ fears, and Bible sub-headings to the contrary, Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is really anything but. Imagine the scene as Jesus clumsily rides into town on a too small, still nursing female donkey with her foal in tow while a mish-mash of country-folk shout out “hosannas” as they throw their dusty coats and some broken down palm branches on the ground. This parade has nothing on the one happening across town as Pilate enters on his warhorse, surrounded by chariots and pomp. Especially during Passover Season, the Roman’s exploited their power through taxation, coercion, and military might. On the contrary, Jesus “emptied himself,” giving up all worldly authority he could rightfully claim in order to fulfill his destiny.
“… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Here’s our moment of transition into Holy Week. In a world where humility is seen as a sign of weakness, even here in what seems to be his most glorious moment, Jesus submits himself to God’s plan for salvation, preparing himself for the ultimate act of humiliation on Good Friday. Jesus won’t just die, he’ll be spit upon, dressed in purple robes and openly mocked; he’ll be scourged, whipped, and beaten; he’ll be dragged through town with a heavy wooden beam across his shoulders, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and raised high up in the air for the whole world to see. His death is one of the cruelest and most degrading in the history of public executions, but it is there, in the depths of his humiliation, not at the height of his triumphal entry, that God lifts Jesus up to his rightful place of honor and glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Deep within one of the oldest hymns of the Church, we find the most ancient creed that Christians have, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not Lord as the Romans used it, as in master and slave, but Lord, as in God. Jesus Christ is God. In his crucifixion, Jesus proves his obedience to the will of the Father and is granted the very name of God, YHWH, which a devout Jew like Paul would never utter, choosing instead to call him Lord. Jesus Christ, who alone is both fully God and fully human, through torture, humiliation, and death is raised up to the very throne of God so that we too might one day gain our inheritance as beloved children.
As we embark on this week, this Holy Week, it is helpful for us to remember that Jesus’ place as King of kings and Lord of lords didn’t come in some fancy parade, but through a most gruesome one. As the days go by this week, as the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leadership becomes more and more intense, I encourage you to ponder Jesus’ unwavering devotion to his Father’s will. In a world that is not that unlike first century Jerusalem, where humility is eschewed for power and authority, I hope you’ll recall Christ’s example of self-emptying love. Whether you are here with us at every service this week, or reading along through the morning emails, my prayer is that you will take a few moments each day to consider Jesus’ mighty acts of humility, and on bended knee, confess and give thanks that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

My Dream for the Church at #Acts8

I’m sure I’ve shared this video on this blog before, but as I reflect on the lessons for Sunday, I’m enamoured with the idea that this Sunday is an Acts 8 Sunday, even if the New Testament lesson isn’t from Acts at all.

My dream for the Church, as you hopefully saw, was a Church that is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.  (Seriously, if you haven’t watched this video, do it now.)  This is still my dream for the Church, and it is one that I think falls in line with both my sermon from a few weeks ago on True Religion and works especially well for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

Standing in the midst of Philip’s Caesartown, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter wastes no time.  He is prepared to give an account of the hope that is in him.  He is ready, willing and able to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, even if he hasn’t a lick of a clue what that really means.  Peter is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.

Of course, proclaiming Jesus in word is one thing.  The rest of Sunday’s story is about how that word become action – how we move from students to followers – and it involves nothing less than denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. It means losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel.  It means giving up our luxuries so that everyone might come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It means personal morality with corporate consequences.

It also means, and here’s the kicker for Acts 8, corporate morality with personal consequences.  What does it mean for The Episcopal Church to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah?  How do we act in light of that good news?  How do we structure ourselves?  Govern ourselves?  Budget ourselves?   How do we communicate?  How do we share?  How do we grow?

If, as the original creed says, Jesus Christ is Lord, where do we go from here?