One Word Changes Everything

On May 10, 2018, NBC News tweeted a report that said, “Major depression is on the rise among everyone, new data shows.”  In response, a sportswriter named Robert O’Neill[1] tweeted back, “Well, I mean.” followed by stage directions that read “gestures broadly at everything.”  More than twenty-eight thousand retweets and ninety thousand likes later, and the *gestures broadly at everything* meme became a permanent part of internet culture.  I had a pretty strong sarcastic streak in me before the COVID-19 pandemic and mandated physical distancing rules, but after a month at home, I’ve polished my sarcasm into a sparkling diamond.  It wasn’t surprising to me, then, as I read the Easter Gospel this week, that the sarcastic *gestures broadly at everything* meme came to mind.  Every time I read it, I couldn’t help but hear the angels ask Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and see Mary sarcastically respond with a *gestures broadly at everything* type motion.

62dw0p1hcvc11

“Woman, why are you weeping?”  Well, let’s start on Thursday night, when one of my friend’s closest disciples betrayed him for a lousy bag of silver.  A mob of soldiers and police came to arrest him, and when things got heated, somebody got their ear chopped off.  Then, another disciple, one of Jesus’ inner circle, maybe the person closest to him of all, denied even knowing him on three separate occasions, while inside the Chief Priest’s house, they spent the whole night trying to make up fraudulent charges against him.  By Friday morning, they had gotten something to stick, or at least they convinced themselves they had, and dragged Jesus over to the Governor’s house, where after hours of back and forth, Pilate handed my friend over to be killed, even though he knew that Jesus had done nothing that deserved crucifixion.  We watched as they beat him senseless, crowned him with thorns, mocked him, spit at him, and made him carry his own cross through the city and out to Golgotha, where they nailed him to a cross and laughed at him while he slowly suffocated to death.  As the sun was about to set, they took down his body and we hastily put it in this tomb in order to keep the Sabbath.  And now, here I am ready to anoint him for a proper burial and somebody has taken him away.  Why am I weeping? *Gestures broadly at everything. *. Yeah, all of that, and a whole lot more, is why I’m weeping.

I’m thinking that maybe most of you can relate to the sarcastic Mary Magdalene character I’ve created in my mind.  Without so many of the traditions that I know and love about Holy Week, I’ve found it really challenging to get into the mindset that there is anything different about today; that there is anything worth celebrating.  As I got up this morning, while it was still dark, put on my seersucker suit that barely fits thanks to a month of snacking, TV watching, and social distancing, and prepared to make my way to 1215 State Street, I couldn’t help but feel sad.  I miss seeing your smiling faces, I miss the craziness of the Easter Egg Hunts all around the building, I miss the brass and the timpani, I miss seeing Mrs. Spiller arrive at 7:30 to tie lilies to the processional cross, though she still managed to be here in spirit, I miss the joy, the excitement, and the exhaustion of a week that is hard and holy and exhausting and awe-inspiring all wrapped up in one.  I miss *gestures broadly at everything* all of it.

As soon as Mary expresses her fear, frustration, and anguish with the two angels, a new character arrives on the scene.  She assumes him to be the gardener and implores him, “If you took him, please tell me where he is so that I can give him a proper burial.”  There is still not even an inkling in her mind that Jesus is anything other than dead and his body, missing.  This moment had to be the depth of her sadness, her darkest hour, as she desperately searched for the body of her friend, Rabbi, and Lord.  There, at rock bottom, nearly crushed by the shadow of the valley of death, the man Mary thought was the gardener spoke a single word, and her world, and the whole world, changed forever.

Mary.

This year, when everything feels so strange and difficult and dark, I think the word that changed everything for me is “Alleluia.”  I’ll admit, I snuck it in a few days early.  Standing beside a grave in Fairview #1 on Thursday afternoon, I ended the Committal liturgy by saying “Alleluia, Christ is risen.”  Five voices replied back “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia,” and I almost lost it; as the power of breaking that particular fast washed over me.

Alleluia.

A word of praise that we set aside for the season of Lent.  A communal act of fasting that is meant to help prepare us for the joy of Easter.  Having not said that word for more than a month, when I heard it come from my lips, it brought me a twinge of the joy that I knew I’d miss this morning.  I don’t know if hearing it through a screen and saying it in your pajamas or your Easter finest in your living room had the same effect, but I sure hope it did.

IMG_1584

A new meme was created this week ahead of Easter-in-Quarantine.  While it isn’t nearly as popular as the *gestures broadly at everything* meme, I found it helpful as I processed my emotions around this odd and holy day.  It features an image of the Grinch, and in someone’s best Dr. Seuss impression, it reads, “It came without dresses.  It came without ties. It came without baskets, egg, hams, or pies.  And he puzzled and puzzled ‘til his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.  What if Easter, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more?”  Now, we know that the Easter Bunny is an essential employee, and I hope you’re having something delicious for dinner today, but the deep truth of that meme remains.  Even without many of the usual trappings of Easter, Jesus Christ is risen today!  No power on earth, in heaven, or hell, no pandemic or *gestures broadly at everything* anything else in all creation can keep Easter from coming.  Whether we are all gathered in this space, or each in our own homes.  The tomb is still empty.  Darkness did not win.  Hope still lives.

It’s ok to miss all the fun things that go along with our Easter celebrations, but this year, I have found it helpful to remember that the joy of Easter was first discovered by Mary Magdalene in sadness and deep darkness.  In the speaking of a single word, Jesus raised Mary Magdalene to resurrected life.  At the heart of Easter is the truth that God will never leave us, and that sometimes, even with just a single word, God can overcome *gestures broadly at everything* all the sorrow and worry and shame that the world, and we, can place upon us.  Jesus Christ is risen today, and is present in every living room, bedroom, and back porch where this message is being live-streamed, ready to embrace you with the grace and hope and love of God.  So, whether you are gathered with your spouse, with your children, or watching this and feeling all alone, know that you are loved by God and by your community at Christ Church.  And even though we are apart, with God’s help, we can *gestures broadly at everything* all be together as we share in the Good News of Easter, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/robertoneill31/status/994691275960926208?lang=en

New Year’s Resolution

It is that time again.  The people involved change.  They take on new monikers like Weird Anglican Twitter (WAT).  The arguments are more or less obvious.  Yet, it happens like clockwork.  Every year, about two weeks after that one FM station switches over to all Christmas all the time and those big box hardware stores are filled with inflatable things  of all kinds wearing Santa hats the snotty Episcopal crowd gets all fussy about the liturgical calendar.  “Christmas starts December 25th,” they cry out into the void of their slowly dying congregations.  For the one time all year when the American mindset is, even with impure motives, focused on peace, joy,  and love – the things that Jesus found pretty important – Episcopalians on social media are trying to wrap a wet blanket on the whole season.

It is that time of year again wherein I rebel against this craziness.  Let me be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and invite you, dear reader, to cast off these works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.  If you need to put your tree up in November, its ok, I promise you it doesn’t cause early snows (that’s unchecked greed and climate change).  If you need to belt out “All I Want for Christmas is You,” in your best-worst Mariah Cary impersonation, go for it.  You need the Muppets and John Denver Christmas album, I affirm your choice.  Rather than getting all fussy about timing, I’m happy to embrace the best parts of the Christmas season.  It seems this year, maybe more than ever, “We all need a little Christmas now.”

636496237443503611-gty-897130836

What I would recommend this Advent season is to, in the midst of your Christmas revelry and before the pressure of the Gregorian Calendar New Year weighs heavy, is that you take this changing of the season and the liturgical new year, to make your new year’s resolution.  Here’s mine – to take better care of my spiritual self.

Life is busy.  With kids involved in stuff, work always in my pocket, and my schedule increasingly not under my control, I’ve lost my moorings.  As you have seen, blogging was the first to go.  The 20 or 30 minutes that were so easy to find in seminary, as an associate, and even in my early days as a Rector seem more elusive as the days roll by.  The Daily Office held on longer, but it too has succumb to the pressures of my own making.  So, here’s my Advent 1 New Year’s Resolution – to get back to it.  To read the Daily Office with regularity and to write on this here blog, or if that’s not feeding my soul anymore, to find a new spiritual discipline, in order to feed my soul.  As we enjoy the increased skyglow that comes with Christmas decorations, I ask you to pray for me in trying to keep my new year’s resolution and, if you share, I’ll pray for you in yours.

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.

Giving Thanks

Due to the nature of parish ministry and the hamster wheel of Sunday services, the sermon prep for Thanksgiving Day, a Major Feast that is supposed to be “regularly observed” in the Episcopal Church, but for which I will not get fussy because I know we don’t “regularly observe” all the Major Feasts here, often gets short shrift.  So, here I am, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, sitting my study in a closed Parish Office, giving on the first real thought to what I might say tomorrow at 10 am.  As I read through the lessons appointed for Thanksgiving, a theme comes quickly to the fore.  It seems that the lectionary folk would have us notice that there is a dichotomy between worry and thankfulness.

igotyourbackbro_65ee31_3690579

The prophet Joel writes to the people of Israel after an invasion of locusts.  Now, whether this book is really about bugs or about a nation invading their Palestinian homeland, I’ll let the reader decide, but either way, what comes in the wake of either invasion is, most commonly, fear.  The destruction of crops or buildings and the real threat to livelihood and life lead the people of Israel to the point of anxiety and worry.  And what does the prophet Joel say to them?  Well, he says what every person who speaks on behalf of God says to an anxious people, “Do not fear.”

The same holds true of Jesus.  As he looks out upon a crowd of people who are victims of the rat race, he sees the worry in their faces.  First century Jews, most of whom were from families relying on subsistence tradesmen for survival, were always on the verge of economic disaster.  There was a real and present fear of hunger around every corner.  But Jesus, somehow without platitude, but rather real conviction, can look out on faces wrinkled with distress and say, “Don’t worry, God’s got this.”

For 21st century American Christians, living in a Pinterest world, on the day we turn our focus to the perfect Instagram worthy Thanksgiving table, it would behoove us to listen to Joel and to Jesus.  Worry is the antithesis of thanksgiving.  If our lives our lived only wondering where the next things is going to come from, we are never able to live with a spirit of thanksgiving in the moment.  So, I urge you, dear reader, to not worry.  Don’t fret about the right homily, the perfect centerpiece, or the ideal moisture content in your turducken.  Instead, be grateful for the moment, for the relationships, for the food, and for our God who is ever present and the giver of every good gift.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Mega Joy of Christmas – a sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read it here.

Merry Christmas!


​        I’m not sure there is anything that Saint Luke can’t do. He might be history’s first renaissance man. He was a physician, a theologian, an evangelist, and at times, a historian. Above all else, however, Luke was a storyteller: one of the best storytellers the world has ever known, and his skill is on full display in tonight’s Gospel lesson, the greatest story ever told.

Luke begins the Christmas story the way so many great stories begin, with political intrigue.  The powers-that-be in Rome had decided that it was once again time to raise taxes beyond their already crippling rate, and so they called for a census. Now, the Romans were as ruthless as they were smart. They knew that the best way to show their might it to treat people like they were nothing, and so, they put the onus of the census on their subjects, moving them around like pawns at their whim.  Every man was required to close his business, pack up his family, and travel to his ancestral hometown.  For Joseph, this meant he and his nine-months-pregnant wife, Mary, had to embark on an 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Under the best circumstances, this would have been a four-day trek.  Heaven only knows how long it would take with Mary great with child.

From political intrigue, Luke transitions to family drama.  As Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, word of Mary’s… condition… had preceded them.  Joseph’s kinfolk had done the math.  Mary is way too pregnant for how long they’ve been married.  One door after another is shut in Joseph’s face.  “Sorry, there is no room for you here.”  It was late, and Mary was beginning to feel the impending reality.  The baby is coming, and family dynamics or not, Mary needed a place to lie down so that she could have the baby in safety, and she needed to find it quickly.  Desperate, Joseph tried one last place, the inn on the edge of town.  This too was a non-starter, but out back, there was a barn.  It wasn’t much, but it would protect the young mother and her child from the elements.

Wisely, Luke skips over the details of the birth, but soon enough, we are witnesses to the child that Gabriel promised would be called the Son of the Most High who will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  Suddenly, the scene shifts, and we find ourselves well out of town with some shepherds gathered around an evening fire.  We might have quaint images of children in shepherd costumes tending their flocks by night, but Luke certainly did not.  In the first century, shepherds were universally despised; a necessary evil in a world that was still transitioning away from nomadic farming.  They were hired hands, sent off into the wilderness to tend the sheep of rich cattle owners.  They didn’t count as people, so they didn’t have to make the journey to their ancestral homes to be counted in the census.  Out for months at a time, doing who-knows-what in who-knows-where, shepherds were considered so unclean that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates.  It was a well-established belief that shepherds were dishonest cheats.  Way out there, nobody could know how many lambs were born each spring, and so, maybe they sold a few lambs each season to line their own pockets.[1]  Shepherds were considered so deceitful that they were not allowed to testify in court.

It is way out there, with the smelly, untrustworthy, not-even-qualified-to-be-called-a-person shepherds, that the Good News of Jesus’ birth is first made known.  Now, if you had been told your whole adult life that you were of no value and that God couldn’t even love you, when the darkness of the night was suddenly torn open with heavenly glory and an angel looked you square in the eyes, the proper response would certainly be one of fear.  Some might say terrified, but I prefer the King James Translation.  “They were sore afraid.”  This fear was something beyond what you might experience on the Tower of Terror ride at Hollywood Studios or the fear some might feel walking around the Nave all alone, late at night.  In the Greek, Luke, the great storyteller, writes that the shepherds “epho-batha-san phobon megan,” they “feared a mega fear.”

The angel, knowing as angels always do that a human’s initial reaction to them will be fear, quickly tries to calm the situation.  “Fear not!” the angel says, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  Again, turning to the Greek, we see the beauty of Luke’s storytelling skills, the angels tells the shepherds “euanggelion umin caran megalen,” literally, “I bring you good news of mega joy!”  God steps into the depths of mega fear, appearing to a crowd of shepherds who had been convinced they were worthless liars, and shares with them the good news of mega joy that on this night, in the city of David is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  It is to those who were never to be trusted that God entrusted the Good News.

Like I said, Luke is a phenomenal storyteller, but his greatest gift is including each of us in the story.  The good news of mega joy is given to the shepherds, but it is intended to be shared with all people, which, in case you were unsure, definitely includes you and me.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you too have what it takes to spread the Good News of great joy for all the people.  And so, tonight, despite whatever else we might have going on in our lives: no matter how mega the fear might be, how profound the sadness, how stressful the situation, we join with two thousand years of Christians in hearing the words of the angel, “Fear Not!”  And maybe, even just for a moment, we allow the mega joy to take hold, and join our voices to the heavenly chorus, shepherds, apostles, prophets, and martyrs in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”  We join with two thousand years of Christians who have given thanks for the good news of mega joy that Jesus was born to give us hope and courage in the face of fear and sadness.

Luke’s ability to include us in this amazing story is what keeps Christmas relevant in a world that is increasingly suspicious of the religion that follows Jesus.  Seeking out hope in the midst of fear is something we can all understand, something we all desire. There is something universal about trying to set aside the frustrations of everyday life in order to have 24 hours of uninterrupted joy.  Christmas is the one time each year where everybody gets the chance to smile in the face of a thousand things that would cause you to frown.  To quote my favorite Christmas movie, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  Not gifts or lights or food or family, but the good news of mega joy that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into a world full of mega fear to save it.

Luke’s great story continues, with the shepherds running off to find the baby, and when they saw him, just as the angels had told them, they returned to the fields, with hearts full of joy, praising and glorifying God as they went.  Let’s follow in their example.  Christmas is here, my friends.  Thanks be to God!  Now, let’s get to celebrating the good news of mega joy for all people: Jesus Christ is born!  Amen.

[1] Thanks Frank Logue http://aplm2013.blogspot.ca/2013/12/preachers-study-christmas-2013.html

Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

15-daily-dependence-shepherds-1

It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

Thankfulness Doublecheck

When State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers to be a celebrity endorser, they brought along his touchdown celebration as well.  Rodgers was known to do a championship-belt-wrestler-type move which is now better known for the Discount Doublecheck than it is for the star quarterback’s touchdown dance.  They even did a humorous spoof on his confusion for one of their 30 second ads.

giphy

While I am not a State Farm customer, I do appreciate the doublecheck idea as the downhill slide toward Christmas begins.  With mere hours between Advent 4 and Christmas Eve, Advent 2 means you best be on the ball when it comes to Christmas preparations.  In the world, that means gifts should be purchased, cards mailed, parties planned, and above all, money must be spent.  In the church it means bulletins should be prepared, special music practiced, pageants rehearsed, and above all, money must be spent.  Unfortunately, the differences between how the world and the church celebrate Christmas can be difficult to discern.  The number of faithful Christians who flock to Black Friday sales on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day are a clear indicator of that.

giphy1

Must spend money!!!!

This is why I’m digging the idea of a thankfulness doublecheck as we begin preparations for Advent 3.  In what seems like an oddly timed lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul admonishes his readers, and, by extension, us, to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of a season predicated on spending money to buy stuff that people don’t need and likely don’t even want, this advice should catch us short.  Advent 3 is a time for a thankfulness doublecheck.

Am I so caught up in the Christmas Industrial Complex that I have forgotten to find joy in the gifts that God has given me?  Am I so busy running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting all my secular plans in place that I’ve forgotten to pray today?  Am I so obsessed with more that I am incapable of being thankful for what I already have?

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge about Christmas, just inviting us to gain some perspective on what this season has become for many.  Rather than it being about stress and debt, Paul invites us to make this Christmas about joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.  Today seems like as good a day as any for a Thanksgiving Doublecheck.  Won’t you join me?

Allowed? Yes. Wise? Well…

While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary.  I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble.  Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last.  Always drive the speed limit.  Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew.  Be very specific about which stores you will go to.  On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

dl1

Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area.  There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work.   One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7.  As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired.  In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story.  Here the competition was fierce.  Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in.  If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting.  These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.

As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work.  I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place.  Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?  Sure, that’s human nature.  Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses?  Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases.  Is is wise to operate that way?  The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way.  This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.

Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in.  The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign.  Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage.  Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful.  To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy.  Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom.  The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.

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.

woman-finds-coin-rejoices-mann_1163846_inl

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.

Making all things new

bg_1_cup_right_contents_out_490px

I know what you are thinking.  The whole butterfly metaphor for new lift is so cliche’ and rife with the possibility of heresy.  I totally get that initial reaction.  I probably would have had it too had FBC not received this live butterfly garden kit for her seventh birthday.  The cool thing about this insectarium in a box is that it doesn’t come with freeze dried butterflies (I’m not sure how you’d make them travel-worthy).  Instead, it comes with baby caterpillars.  You get to watch them gain nutrition from the biological sludge in the bottom of their cup and grow into their full stature.  Most recently, they’ve moved from larva to pupa, each one forming a chrysalis which is now ready for the terrifying-to-me move from the safety of their plastic cup to the new world of their butterfly garden.  Watching the wonder in my two girls as they notice each change along the way has given new meaning to the word from the one sitting on the throne in John’s Revelation:

“See, I am making all things new.”

Even before the chrysalises had formed, every morning my daughters could see that something new was happening in that tiny plastic cup.  As I think about the promise of God in John’s Revelation, I can’t help but realized that I have stopped being able to see the world with the same sort of wonder.  I don’t wake up looking for the new things God is doing in the world, but if I believe the Scriptures, and take seriously the words Jesus taught me to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then every day, little by little, God must be doing something new in the world.  Perhaps I should add to my prayers that God might “open my eyes to see his hand at work in the world about me.”

What about you, dear reader?  Are you able to see the new things that God is doing in your world?  Where is God calling you to meet him?  What blessing has God prepared for you that maybe you just can’t recognize yet?  Where is the spring of the water of life bursting forth in your little corner of the Kingdom?  Last week, I prayed that our ears might be open to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Today, my prayer is that our eyes might be open to see with joy and wonder the new thing God is doing in our midst.