Serving Christ

Thanks to the Holy Spirit and scheduling conflicts, we’ll be baptizing three people at the 10am service on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.  I can hear the grumbling from my Anglo-Catholic friends, and while I agree baptisms on Easter would be preferred, I think a baptism smack in the middle of Lent works just fine, especially on Lent 5B.

Here’s what Jesus says about discipleship in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Here’s what the Baptismal Covenant says, at least in part, about discipleship, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

The life of discipleship is a life of service to Christ and neighbor.  Jesus tells us that plainly as he approaches the cross, and the Church makes it equally clear for those who would come to be baptized in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection.  So what does it look like to serve Jesus?  Like I said on Monday, it is about loving our neighbor so much that they are compelled to ask why.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the poor through food pantries, homeless shelters, and advocacy.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the middle class by teaching them that the American Dream isn’t the be all and end all, that he who dies with the most toys still dies, that life is more than soccer games, good grades, and eating dinner in the car.  Serving Jesus looks like challenging the rich to share their blessings with those less fortunate, to give generously to the Church, and to take good care of those in their employ.  Serving Jesus looks like reaching beyond our selves to ensure that the whole world can see and know that Jesus Christ loves everything and everyone he created.

John 3:16 NRSPV – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

When it comes to language and its ability to convey meaning beyond the words on a page, Greek and Hebrew are like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel while English is more like the finger paintings my two year-old brings home from pre-school.  Both have their inherent beauty, but one speaks deep to the soul.  Even in arguably the most famous sentence in all of Scripture, the English translation leaves us lacking.  I’m talking, of course, about John 3:16.  I’m told Martin Luther called it “The Gospel in a nutshell.”  I found a picture on the internet this week of a walnut-turned-locket that had John 3:16 written on one side and an acrostic for GOSPEL “God’s Only Son Promises Eternal Life” on the other.  Thanks to “Rainbow Man” Rollen Stewart,[2] John 3:16 has, for decades now, been the favorite passage of every major sporting event in America.  Even, and maybe even especially, in this era of growing secularism, John 3:16 is for us the great summation of the Good News of Jesus.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Many of you know it by heart, probably in the King’s English, but as I dug into this verse this week, I began to realize that the beautiful message of love and mercy isn’t exactly what Jesus was saying.  He was saying something even better.  With a lot of help from Luther Seminary New Testament Professor, Sarah Henrich,[3] I began to look at John 3:16 in Greek and saw new levels of deeper meaning opening up right before my eyes.  The King James Version is much more flowing, but here’s the New Revised Steve Pankey Version. “God loves the world thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The first thing I noticed was that the word translated as “love” is agape.  You’ve no doubt heard before that in Koine Greek, there were at least four different words that can be translated as “love.”  “Eros” is the passionate love that we most often associate with an intimate partner.  “Storge” is the natural affection felt within families, as in the love a parent naturally has for their child.  “Philia” is the catchall type of love: the love that friends have for one another or the love I have for the Pittsburgh Steelers and crawfish boils.  Finally, there is agape love.  Agape love is used throughout the New Testament.  It is the type of love that Paul writes about in his famous love poem from 1st Corinthians 13: it is patient and kind and it seeks the needs of others.  Agape love is the type of love that defines who God is as the author of First John boldly proclaims that “God is love.”  It is the type of love that Jesus commands us to have for God, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.  Jesus says agape love is the hallmark of the Christian discipleship, “they will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”  We learn agape love from the example of God who sent his only Son.  God loves the world with a deep, self-giving, abiding sort of love.

The next thing I noticed was that this agape love is a verb in John 3:16, and not just any verb, but a verb in the aorist tense.  We don’t have the aorist tense in English, so my Greek professor, Tony Lewis, explained the it by way of the refectory’s occasional use of a sausage lunch buffet.  There’d be hot dogs, kielbasa, and Italian sausage to choose from, and all the way at the end was this strange, Mexican inspired, sausage looking thing called the “fiesta dog.”  “Some of you will have your curiosity piqued,” he’d say, “and you might avail yourselves of the fiesta dog and soon you will understand the aorist tense: an event that begins at a particular moment in time, but goes on for eternity.  You will eat the fiesta dog once, but its effects will be long lasting.”  God’s agape love for his creation is in the aorist tense.  It started at the beginning of time and it will continue forever into the future.  God’s agape love is active and ongoing.

Third, we most often hear about how God so loved the world, but it really isn’t about how much God loves the world, but about how he shows it.  God shows his love for the world thusly, he sent his only Son to restore it.  All. Of. It.  From the amoebas in the sea to the Billy goats on the mountain side, from the baby asleep in a mosquito net in east Africa to the CEO in the corner office in mid-town Manhattan, from me in the depths of my sinfulness to you in the heights of your hopes and dreams, God sent his only Son as sign and symbol of his love for everything he created.  The love God has for the world is deep and self-giving, active and ongoing and it drives God to work toward restoring all of creation to right relationship with him.

Finally, the natural response to God’s deep and abiding love for us is not belief as it has been co-opted over the past five hundred years or so.  God doesn’t invite us to check off a series of boxes about things we intellectually assent to: Creation in 7, 24-hour days – check; A flood that covered the whole earth – check; the Virgin Birth – check; Water into wine – check; the anti-Christ of Revelation – check.  Instead, the response God seeks is a relationship with him.  We find our entrance into eternal life by entering into a trusting relationship with the one who loves us from the beginning of time.  “Whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  What makes us disciples, what makes us Christians, is that we’ve turned our lives over to Christ.  We’ve responded to God’s invitation into relationship and placed our trust in Jesus alone.

So often, John 3:16 is used as a weapon against those who do not believe in God in the right way.  Too often, it is used to define who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s love.  The truth of the matter is that God loves everyone and everything he has created, and desires to be in right relationship with all of it.  There are those who choose to walk away from the overwhelming love of God, and this passage tells us they have condemned themselves; there is no need for us to add to that.   They have chosen to walk in darkness, and God loves them enough to let them make their own choices.  Meanwhile, the millions upon millions of us who are trying to follow the way of the Kingdom, trying to walk in the light, trying to trust God and to love God, even when we fail to do so, eternal life is guaranteed.

The love of God was poured out in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit continues to work through all creation to impart grace upon us, to motivate us to faith, and to enkindle within us a deep and abiding love for our Creator.  It is all the work of God, the work of a God who loves the world and shows his love thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.  I guess that really is the Gospel in a nutshell.  Amen.

[1] http://www.aardpiggy.com/BibleChallenges/Nutshell.html

[2] Mr. Stewart’s story is the tragic tale of theology gone bad.  You can read more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollen_Stewart or watch an ESPN news piece here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot7J025JS5U

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=263

Thy Kingdom Come – a Lenten Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer

I taught the second of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s prayer last week.  Here’s the text.

Good evening.  Welcome to the second week of our four part Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Last week, we looked at the opening acclamation of the prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Father Keith helped us think about how we approach God both as Abba, our Father, on YHWH, the Great I am, a name so holy that a proper Jew would never speak it.  We looked especially at the story of  Moses at the Burning Bush, where God was both accessible to Moses and yet appeared in the form of fire, a force that must be treated with great reverence.

Tonight we will turn our attention to the second portion of the prayer.  If you’ll recall, Keith noted that the Lord’s Prayer follows a somewhat modified A.C.T.S format: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  Tonight’s section, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” falls under confession.  Simply in saying these words, we know that they are not yet true.  The kingdom of God is not yet fully realized here on earth.  We are not living out the will of God every moment of every day.  That’s why we have to pray for it, and we do, we pray earnestly that God’s kingdom would come, but ultimately, the responsibility for the building the kingdom of God falls on us.  When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will see fully what the kingdom is like.

Saint Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun and mystic is credited with writing a poem called, “Christ has no body.”  In that poem, she reminds us that since the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus carry the responsibility of the kingdom.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thy kingdom come Lord.  Thy will be done.  Help me to do it.  Of course, we know all too well that discerning God’s will is much easier said than done.  Even when we turn to the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t give us much help.  More often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he does it in veiled stories called parables.  When he was asked why he taught in parables, Jesus said, “Because the kingdom of God is so hard to understand.”  For thousands of years, the seeds of the Kingdom have been planted.  Through a bow in the clouds, God established a covenant with Noah and planted a seed.  Through the promise of a son, God established a covenant with Abraham and planted a seed.  Through the promise of an Exodus from Egypt, God establishes a covenant with Moses and planted a seed.  Prophets came and reminded the people that for the kingdom to grow into full blossom, the people of God had to water and care for it.  Holy people throughout the ages fertilized the kingdom through their prayers and compassion.  Faithful people have tilled the ground, studied the scriptures, and longed for the kingdom to come.  And then Jesus came along, the kingdom of God personified, and told people stories about the seeds that had been planted.[1]

“[The Kingdom of God] is like a tiny mustard seed planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds come and find shelter among its branches.”  Most of us have absolutely no concept of a mustard tree.  You might know mustard seeds, if you’re sort of foodies and like to make Indian food or maybe you’ve probably seen them ground up in a Grey Poupon jar, but most people have no concept of what happens between mustard seed and the French’s yellow mustard that ends up on their hotdog.  Of course, Jesus’ crowd knew about mustard seeds.  Mustard plants grew wild in Palestine; they were the kudzu of their time.  When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, he tells the people that after thousands of years of seed planting, the kingdom of God is getting ready to run amuck.  As we hear that parable two thousand years later, there is evidence all around that the kingdom is growing, spreading, and in some cases even flourishing, even while in some places it is being choked out by fear, anger, and just plain ignorance.

The kingdom of God is here.  Growth has begun and continues every time a disciple of Jesus chooses to follow the will of God.  The kingdom is fertilized by acts of care and compassion.  The kingdom of God grows with love.  The kingdom of God comes when God’s will is done.  So what does that look like?  Like I said, it can be confusing.  Seminary was really hard for me.  My eyes were opened to all sorts of new and scary things.  By the time my first year was coming to an end, I was seriously considering dropping out.  I had a great safety net.   I could always go back and work for my father-in-law.  Doug is a good Christian man who runs his company on good Christian principles.  Surely I could fulfill the will of God by working for him.  Yet, God had so clearly called me to be a priest.  As a preacher and teacher I could share God’s will with others so easily.  Surely staying in seminary was God’s will for me.  They couldn’t both be God’s will, but they both sure felt like it. I finally realized that God’s will for me wasn’t about what job I had or what food I ate or what socks I wore.  God’s will for me is the same as God’s will for the whole world, to be restored to right relationship.  God’s will for me was to love him and love my neighbor as myself.  I could fulfill God’s will while working for Thomas Construction or as an ordained minister, the details didn’t matter, the way in which I lived did.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we confess that the world is not yet the way God intended it to be.  Each time, we invite God to open our eyes to the ways we can fulfill his will in our lives: to help us find ways to be his hands and his feet.  Each time, we repeat the hope of generations of disciples who have come before us that the kingdom of God might come in fullness.  Each time, we affirm our faith in the God who can set all things right, make all things new, and restore all things to the fullness of his good and perfect will.

[1] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, p. 161.

Life, Soul, Self – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon for Lent 2 is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark tells us that Jesus made this declaration not just to his disciples, but he made sure that the whole crowd was gathered ’round.  We’ve jumped our way through Mark’s Gospel since the Epiphany, so it is kind of hard to tell what’s been going on.  Let’s review.  We’ve heard how Jesus called his first disciples away from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  We’ve also heard how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and the whole city of Capernaum came to see what he was up to.  From there, Jesus went from town to town, preaching the good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  His fame spread and his followers grew until in chapter three, Mark says that “a great multitude followed him from all around.”[1]

Jesus’ ministry continued to flourish with only a small hiccup in his hometown of Nazareth.  By the time we get to chapter 6, the crowd following Jesus had grown to more than five thousand men, not counting women and children.  Some scholars suggest that there were upwards of twenty-thousand followers of Jesus at the height of his popularity, so when Jesus invites the crowd to gather ‘round, we’re talking lots and lots of people.  Clearly Jesus didn’t study marketing in Hebrew school as even the least business savvy person on earth would know that you don’t take advantage of huge popularity by making massive demands of your followers.  Take up your cross?  Lose your life?  This is not the stuff of church growth textbooks, and yet it is the very core of the Gospel message.

Remember way back to chapter one.  At the very outset of his ministry, Jesus made it clear what he was going to be about, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Following Jesus requires repentance and belief, which means, as Jesus says in our lesson for today, a complete change of life.  Jesus uses provocative language as he speaks to a crowd of thousands to let them know that following him isn’t going to lead them to fame, fortune, or cushy cabinet positions.  Peter didn’t get that, and he got called Satan.  Jesus wants everyone to know that following him means a complete identity change.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  As relatively comfortable, 21st century, American Christians, these words from Jesus can be hard to wrap our minds around.  Recent events by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have given us an idea of what extreme persecution and martyrdom look like, but here in the States, we are free to worship at any of our roughly three-hundred-fourteen-thousand churches.[2]  The biggest sacrifice the average Christian makes to follow Jesus in 21st century America is giving up one day of sleeping-in every two or three weeks.  Giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel seems impossible and ridiculous all rolled up into one luke-warm cup of coffee-hour coffee.  So what are we to do?  How are we to be faithful disciples in a world where being a Christian is so dadgum easy?

Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is asking for in this morning’s Gospel.  He doesn’t want our lives, per se, but instead, he’s seeking after our selves, our souls and bodies.  “Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul four times in three verses.”  The NRSV translates the Greek word “psuche” as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning is closer to soul or self.  “Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.”[3]

In its original context, Jesus’ language is intentionally provocative.  He wants people to realize just how difficult it will be to be his disciples as they head toward Jerusalem, but he isn’t suggesting that they all become martyrs for his cause, though some of them will.  Instead, he is inviting the crowd to think long and hard about who they are and whose they are.  He’s inviting them, and us, to repent and to change our primary identity away from me, myself, and I and toward the kingdom of God.  Jesus is inviting us to think no longer about our own selfish desires, but instead to put God and neighbor first.

My friend, Keith Voets, wrote an article for this month’s Anglican Digest[4] in which he told Delores Hart’s story of selflessness.  Delores was born in Chicago in 1938.  By age 11, she had moved with her family to the glitz and glamor of Beverly Hills.  At 19, she made her film debut in Loving You staring Elvis Presley.  That film, and more specifically, her giving Elvis his first on-screen kiss, catapulted Delores into stardom.  She starred in nine more films over the next five years, when in 1963 she stunned Hollywood, announcing that she would leave the movie star life to enter a Roman Catholic convent.  The Rev. Mother Delores Hart is now 76 years old and the Prioress at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

As Father Voets writes, “Delores Hart gave up a life that many can only dream of: fame, fortune, and glamour. She seemed to have it all, and yet, realized she did not. Delores Hart, pulled by the Holy Spirit, decided to sacrifice it all so that she could serve God through a life of humility, poverty, prayer, and hospitality.”[5]  Like the call to martyrdom, Delores Hart’s call to become a Religious is a one that none of us will probably hear, but her example of giving up life and self for the Kingdom of God is one worth knowing.  Jesus calls us all to be faithful to him, no matter the cost.  He invites us to lay down the identity we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves: intelligent, attractive, athletic, funny, gainfully employed, good parent, caring friend, charming party host, comfortably retired, you name it, Jesus invites us to hand over our carefully crafted identities to take on the only identity that really matters, beloved disciple and child of God.

The massive crowd that followed Jesus began to dwindle after this short speech.  He continued to predict his arrest, death, and resurrection.  He made more difficult demands, and he upset the religious and political powers that be.  Following Jesus became harder by the hour until one day, a Friday we call Good, when only a handful of women, his Mother, and one disciple followed him to the place of the skull where he was crucified as a traitor to Rome.  The good news for the disciples who ran scared, the crowd that lost interest, and we who struggle to give our lives over for the sake of the Gospel is that in laying down his life, Jesus opened the flood gates of God’s grace.  Each time we fail to follow him.  Each time we choose our life over the gospel.  Each time we try to fit God into our plans, we can receive forgiveness and enter again into the new life of grace that comes through Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of the gospel.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 3:7-8 (author’s paraphrase)

[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#numcong

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[4] “Lights! Camera! Action! A Life of Faith and Service” p. 29-31. Accessed on 2/26/15 http://www.scribd.com/doc/253532100/2015-01-SPRING

[5] Ibid., p. 29

Set your mind on divine things

My Transfiguration sermon was mostly spent telling the story of Peter’s confession of and rebuke by Jesus.  So it goes that two weeks later, we hear the story of that rebuke as we continue our Lenten journey through Mark’s Gospel.  The benefit of hearing it more than once, and especially of hearing it read from Mark the second time around, is that we have some familiarity with it already.  We’re ready, maybe, to hear Jesus call his right hand man, Satan.  Perhaps also, we’re more able to notice the scant few details that Mark offers in this story.

What I noticed this morning was exactly what Jesus rebukes Peter for.  Jesus fusses at Peter for setting his mind on human things, not divine things.  Or at least that is what the NRSV would have us believe.  I was struck by that word “divine” and went seeking to find out what it might have meant to Jesus, when I realized that it isn’t actually what he said.  In the Greek, and in pretty much every other major translation, Jesus actually says to Peter, “you’re not thinking about the things of God, but rather than things humanity.”  To convey it in a more popular idiom, “that’s not God’s will but yours.”

Peter gets rebuked because he refused to follow the will of God.  As I said in my sermon two week’s ago, choosing my will over the will of God is the very definition of sin.  That’s why Peter gets called Satan.  Satan sought his own will.  Peter sought his own will.  And often, I seek my own will as well.

To set our minds on God’s will requires that we set aside our own.  We must lay aside the devices and desires of our own hearts, repent, and seek after the devices and desires of God.  It isn’t easy.  Even Jesus’ right hand man, Simon Peter of Capernaum, failed from time to time.  Our invitation, especially in Lent, is to be intentional about laying down our own stuff to follow after God, or as the NRSV prefers to put it: to set our minds on divine things.

Ash Wednesday Homily

You can listen to today’s homily on the Saint Paul’s Website or read it here.

“Take heed!  Watch out!  Beware! Give some extra thought about practicing your piety before others.”  These words from Jesus that we hear every Ash Wednesday took on real meaning for Cassie and me back in 2006.  Ash Wednesday fell on the First of March that year, our third wedding anniversary.  I was in Seminary, serving at a parish in Potomac, MD and we planned to have dinner on our way home after the 6pm Ash Wednesday Liturgy – at an Indian restaurant.  You might not know this, but in Indian culture, many women wear a Bindi on their foreheads. The Bindi is a red dot worn to represent the third eye, one that sees spiritual things that are beyond ordinary sight.  We had a long conversation in the car on the way to dinner.  Should we keep the black smudge on our foreheads or not?  Jesus told us to beware about practicing our piety before others.  Would our dinner hosts think we were poking fun at their culture?  Would they even notice or care?  Ultimately, we decided to rub the black smudges off our foreheads, knowing that the true work of repentance in Lent happens on the inside.

In just a few minutes, Father Keith will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Over the next forty plus six days, we’ll take on the challenge of sanctification, the work of becoming more in line with the will of God for our lives and for the world God created.  This work is not to be done in showy ways.  If you’re giving up Facebook for Lent, maybe just disappear, don’t change your profile picture to say, “I’m off Facebook for Lent because I’m holier than you are.”  If you’re going to fast on Fridays, don’t spend the day complaining about how hungry you are because you’re fasting, unlike the rest of us wretched sinners who insist on eating delicious food.  If you are taking on reading the Bible or praying  the Daily Office, you can probably do it without interspersing, “While I was reading Leviticus this morning” or “During Morning Prayer, which I read every day, you know…”  The work of a holy Lent is intended to strengthen our relationship with God, not make us the annoyance of our fellow human beings.

In the Episcopal tradition, we are invited to take part in a holy Lent in three ways: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  The first thing you’ll notice is that these are strung together by the word “and” not by an “or.”  These three observances, when combined, offer the full expression of the work of a holy Lent.  First comes self-examination and repentance.  I think they are listed first because it is the part we are least likely to do.  While most of us are our own toughest critics, it usually has to do with our weight or our work or our pocketbooks.  Rarely do we take the time to take honest stock of whether or not our lives are being lived in accordance with the will of God.  The questions we need to be asking this Lent are more like: How am I doing at loving my neighbor?  What about loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  What areas of my life need to be purged or cleansed – what do I need to change – in order to follow God’s will?

Second on the list is prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  This is probably the most popular Lenten observance: giving something up for Lent is still a strong cultural phenomenon.  You’ll note that in our Prayer Book, it isn’t just about giving something up for the sake of giving something up, but rather prayer is tied in with the other two.  The goal of our fasting is to make us better able to focus on our relationship with God.  If chocolate or wine take away from your prayer time, then by all means give them up, but I think the intent of this practice in our hyper-connected-an-iPhone-in-every-hand-and-a-television-in-every-waiting-room culture is less about losing weight or quitting smoking and more about turning our attention toward the Father.  Maybe instead of reading that Young Adult Vampire novel for an hour every night, you can spend 15 minutes in prayer.  Or log off Facebook and use the time you’d spend getting angry at political posts offering God thanks for the day that you’ve been given.  Or put your cell phone away when you get home from work and focus your attention on being thankful for the gifts that are right in front of you: family, friends, pets, Pat Sajak, you name it.

Finally, we have the invitation to read and meditate on God’s holy Word.  Daily Bible study is key to the observance of a Holy Lent.  You don’t have to read the whole Bible in the next 46 days.  The call is not just to read, but also to meditate.  Take small chunks and read them slowly, prayerfully listening for what God is saying through the scriptures.  The Gospel of Mark has something like 675 verses.  If you read and mediate on 15 verses a day, you’ll read the whole book by Easter.  Romans, the Mount Everest of the Bible, has only 433 verses: 10 a day will take you through the best theological text book you’ll ever read.  Living a holy Lent doesn’t have to be all consuming.  You don’t have to be like the ancient Celtic Christians who went neck deep in the North Sea and recited all 150 Psalms from memory.  You don’t need to lament and bewail your manifold sins every waking moment.  What you do have to do is be intentional about it.  Make the choice right now to accept the invitation of the observance of a holy Lent.  Set aside three 10 minute blocks each day.  Confess your sins from the day before each morning and ask God for forgiveness.  Give up watching the news over lunch and pray for your coworkers and family instead.  Read a few verses of Scripture and ask God to open your heart to his will for you before you go to bed each night.  Small actions, not big showy displays, are what the Lord desires.  He wants to be in a relationship with you, one that will change your life forever.  As with all relationships, it’ll start small, but with some effort, it’ll bloom into something beautiful, and it all begins by accepting an invitation to a Holy Lent.  Amen.

Get your Ash in Church

I have been openly critical of some of the recent marketing attempts by Church leadership.  Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Adam Trambley wrote a reasoned response to the 2013 Episcopal Church marketing debacle so that I could just be snarky on Facebook, but honestly who thought this was a good idea?

Anyway, in recent years there has been an up and coming trend called “Ashes to Go” in which clerical and lay representatives from congregations set up shop at a busy intersection, outside a popular coffee shop, or near a subway entrance and engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday for those who are too busy to be bothered to come to Church on one of the very few days of obligation remaining in our overly scheduled culture.  This post will not weigh the merits of Ashes to Go because honestly I’m conflicted about it.  On one hand, I think the notion of getting outside of the church walls and engaging in guerrilla liturgy is a good and noble thing.  On the other, I think that the imposition of ashes is a sacramental symbol that can’t be done in isolation from the rest of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday and it loses is value outside of a community of faith.  That being said, there is no way Ashes to Go would work in Foley.  There is no central hub of walking activity.  Everyone is in their own cars going to their own jobs.  Unless I figured out a way to rain down ashes like confetti at the corner of AL-59 and US-98, it’d be a fruitless endeavor, no matter how well I tied up the liturgical quagmire into a neat bow to make sense of it in my own brain.

So it is that I’ve fallen in love with what seems to be the Council of Trent to the Ashes to Go’s 95 Theses, a movement summed up by this great button that you can buy from oldlutheran.com.

The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday is, to my mind, a uniquely powerful one.  It is our habit, those of us who attend the Holy Eucharist with regularity, to approach the altar rail ready to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the species of bread and wine.  We are entrenched in the pattern of coming forward, kneeling (for most of us) at the altar rail, and reaching out our hands to obtain “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  On Ash Wednesday, that experience is very different.  We come forward.  We kneel (most of us).  But we don’t hear the common words.  We don’t taste the familiar elements.  Instead, we feel the cold scratching on our forehead as roughly ground palm ashes mixed with oil are smeared across our brow as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It is an arresting experience, so different than what we’re used to, and very much needed in a world that moves, as my Rector would say, “at break neck speed on the road to no where.”

One can’t have that experience without stopping for a few moments, without stepping out of the passing lane and taking a pause.  It is the one thing that even the best expression of Ashes to Go can’t offer, the intentionality of changing the normal pattern of just one day in order to hear the voice of God as he speaks through the Church.  I get that some simply can’t step out of the patterns of life, and for them, I’m glad Ashes to Go exists, but for the rest of us, honestly the 99.9% of us who can take the time to stop for 30 minutes and invite God into our hearts and onto our foreheads, I say, “Get your Ash in Church.”

If you’re in Foley, join us at 506 N. Pine Street at noon and 6pm.
A nursery will be available at 6pm.

Transfiguration Means Change – a sermon

The audio for today’s sermon for Last Epiphany is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

In the fall of 2013, we held a series of community conversations here at Saint Paul’s.  In groups of ten to twenty, we gathered around a meal and discussed our life together.  We talked about what brought us to Saint Paul’s and what kept us here.  We imagined what the ideal church might look like, and we peered into our crystal ball to dream about how we could improve our parish to better accomplish our mission of reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Inevitably, at each of those gatherings, we ended up talking about change.  At one of the dinners, I heard the old adage that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.  At the time, Lainey was about six months old and going through a phase where every time we tried to change her diaper, she would engage the alligator death roll technique, flipping again and again in an effort to avoid being changed.  It seems nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper likes change. That’s a real bummer for me as a preacher because God’s call to change our lives is what the Transfiguration is all about.

Our story begins with a plot note that we are six days later.  This begs the question, six days after what?  Six days after two monumental events.  Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Caesarea Philippi, a town built by Phillip the Second, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, and named after the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.  It was a distinctly Roman city with a distinctly pagan past, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Pan, the Greek god of desolate places.  As they made their way to this town that served as a gateway to Gentile territory, Jesus began to ask his disciples some questions.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asked.  “John the Baptist,” said some.  Some thought maybe he was Elijah.  Others wondered if he was one of the prophets promised in the lineage of Moses.  “That’s well and good,” Jesus replied, “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter stepped forward and with conviction declared, “You are the Messiah, the anointed one of God.”  Right there, on the edge of a town built to proclaim Roman authority, Jesus was declared the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

The disciples had figured out who he was, but Jesus wanted to be sure they knew what it meant to be the Messiah.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, that he’d be rejected by the leadership of Israel, the Chief Priests, and the scribes, and be killed, but that the story would not end there.  Three days later, he would be raised from the dead!  Peter was not in the mood for change.  He had his idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, and it meant that they would enter Jerusalem with power and might and overthrow the Romans and the Chief Priests, and the Scribes.  Death, even with the promise of resurrection was not on his agenda, and so he stood up and again with conviction spoke to Jesus. “That’s not going to happen, Jesus, we won’t let it.”  Jesus rebuked Peter quickly and strongly, saying, “Get behind me Satan!”

Six days go by.  Six long and awkward days until Jesus comes to Peter and invites him to join James and John for a private talk, up the mountain, by themselves.  While they were up there, something amazing happened.  The event was so spectacular that Mark knew he needed to tell us about it, but seems to have difficulty putting it into words.  Jesus was transfigured: metamorphosized, transformed, changed entirely.  Even his clothes were different; they became a dazzling white, so bright that no human being could have bleached them so.  Mark tries to describe the amazing event by telling us that Jesus’ tunic was “whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling, like nothing you’ve ever seen.”[1]  In an instant, everything about Jesus changed right before their very eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, two of the three characters mentioned in the conversation six days ago appeared alongside Jesus.  Elijah, the one whose coming would bring about the end of the world, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Moses, the Prophet, the first savior of Israel, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Peter realized that things were changing, that his expectations weren’t going to be met, and so, for a third time he speaks, this time with less conviction and more terror in his voice, “Master it’s good that we’re here.  Let’s build three booths, one for each of you.”  Booths, the ancient symbol of God’s salvation, built once a year as a reminder that God sustained his people in the wilderness and one day will come to restore all things.  Peter thinks the change that is coming is the end of the world and he wants to build booths to be ready for it.

Poor Peter still doesn’t quite have it right.  A voice from heaven cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  Listen to his words.  All of them.  Don’t stop listening when he says “I’m going to be killed,” but hear the good news when he says, “and on the third day rise again.”  Be ready to be changed.  Jesus is going to defy your expectations.  He’s going to challenge your assumptions.  He’s going to ask you to give up your life so that he can save it.  Just as Jesus was changed before Peter’s eyes, the whole world is going to be changed through Jesus.

It is true that nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper, likes change.  Sir Isaac Newton knew that nothing in the universe was capable of changing by itself.  His First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted on by an outside force.  Likewise, an object in motion will stay in motion at a constant speed and direction until acted on by an outside force.  We are hard wired to not just change for the sake of change.  An outside force, for example, God, has to be at work.  Unfortunately, most of us are a lot like Peter.  We are so averse to change that even when acted upon by God himself, we’ll resist it.  Refusing to follow the will of God in order to do your own thing has a name my friends, it is called sin.

The story of the Transfiguration offers us a perfect transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent.  We’ve spent the last six weeks getting to know Jesus and what he was about.  We listened in as he was being baptized and heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love.”  We’ve heard Jesus preach about repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  We’ve seen him invite fishermen to become fishers of men.  We’ve been told of crowds who were amazed at his authority, and witnessed him heal the sick, the blind, the lame, and cast out demons with power and might.  Like Peter, we think we know Jesus, but God is about to invite us into a deeper relationship.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be invited to change our lives through the repentance of sins, by turning toward the will of God.  We’ll be given the opportunity to take some extra time, either by adding a spiritual discipline or by shedding a distraction, to listen to God’s call in our lives.  We’ll have the chance to recognize God’s action, pushing us out of our comfortable, sinful patterns and into his kingdom.  No one likes change, but God is all about it.  God is calling each us to be transformed and transfigured through repentance and renewal.  Will you be like Peter and balk at God’s call?  Or will you open your ears and your heart to listen for God and be changed? Which will it be? Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/transfiguration-b/

The Comforts of the Grave

I ended yesterday’s post with an intentionally provocative statement that nobody jumped on at all.  I love it when that happens.  I said it, however, with the thought that it would be my topic for today’s post, and since I can’t get it out of my mind, you, dear reader, are stuck hearing my prolost profundity again today.

“Of course, to get loosed, we must first be willing to step out of the comforts of the grave…”

Gives a whole new meaning to “roll tide”

Final resting places have come a long way since Lazarus was laid on a rock slab in a cave.  We’ve worked really hard to make sure that our graves are plush and reflect our proclivities in this life.  We may not bury our leaders with an army of terracota soldiers, but I’ve seen plenty of personal affects included in the caskets of loved ones.

Of course, this post isn’t really about dead people: at least not physically dead ones.  Instead, I’m pondering what it means to be comfortable in our graves as spiritually, emotionally, relationally dead people?  Worse yet, what about the relative comfort of entire communities of faith that are dead to the Spirit of God – waiting only for the great by and by so that everything can finally get put right.

Just outside the Bethany city walls, Jesus was the resurrection and the life, and he still is today.  He calls us to leave the comfort of our graves and to live with him in the resurrected life.  It isn’t easy, this resurrected life, because it means we are still living, breathing, feeling people.  It means we might get our heart broken as we seek to serve the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  It means that we might find push back as we call our communities of faith to resurrected life.  It means we might go places and meet people that we would have hoped we’d never meet as we share the Good News that Christ is Risen!

Maybe this is what Lent is all about.  The word itself carries a deep meaning of lengthening.  At least here in the northern hemisphere, apparently the only hemisphere anybody cares about, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting brighter.  The stone has been rolled away from our tombs and Jesus is inviting us out into the light.  Leave the comfort of your grave, be loosed, and enjoy the life of the Kingdom.  Today.

It’s Temptation Sunday!

You can listen to what I actually ended up saying on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on to see where I jumped off from.

Have you ever felt envious or jealous toward Jesus?  I mean, in about six weeks’ time, as he’s sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, getting arrested, and hanging crucified on a tree, we won’t wish we were him, but this morning as we hear about his 40 days in the wilderness, maybe you’re getting just a tinge of jealousy. Jesus’ wilderness experience isn’t easy, but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Two-thousand years later, the Church invites us into a 40 day wilderness experience every year. Jesus was able to focus solely on his spiritual journey during his time away. Lent happens in the midst of the busyness of life: work, kids, grand kids on spring break, tax season, and, to add insult to injury, just four days into Lent this year we’ve lost an hour of sleep in the name of “Saving Daylight.”  It probably isn’t rational, but sometimes, I’m tempted to feel jealous of Jesus’ wilderness experience.

Of course, that’s what this day is all about, isn’t it?  Temptation is the overarching theme of the First Sunday in Lent, and probably with good reason.  We’ve got four full days of Lent under our belt, and if Lenten disciplines are anything like New Year’s Resolutions, then by now nearly 20% of you have already given up on what you’ve given up for Lent[1].  Couple that with the peculiarity of Lent that Sundays, as mini-Easters and Feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ, don’t count, and your personal Lenten devotion is in for a real challenge today.  I guarantee, you’ll be tempted to give up that extra 15 minutes of Bible reading, or to take back up that morning Coca-Cola before the day is over.  Temptation is alive and well here on the First Sunday in Lent.

It can be said, for many different reasons, that there was great wisdom in the members of the Standing Liturgical Commission that created the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but this morning I am particularly grateful that they chose to pray for God’s help against temptation when they made the decision to replace the Collect for Lent 1 that had appeared in every Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s first in 1549.  Somewhere, in the midst their negotiations, someone brought up a collect buried deep in the Appendix of a book published in 1864[2].  After more than two-hundred pages of history, theology, and devotional reflections on the Collects of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, William Bright, the author of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, was brave enough to offer several collects he had written himself.  Third from the end was a prayer “For the Tempted” which reads, “Merciful and High Priest, Who didst deign for us to be tempted of Satan; make speed to aid Thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and as Thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find Thee mighty to save, Who livest and reignest with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”[3]  Like I said, thankfully there are Churchnerds out there who are nerdier than even I am, and found that collect that, with only a few minor revisions, became the Collect for Lent 1 which Keith prayed on our behalf this morning.  A prayer which calls us to keep alert for the ways in which the tempter will make himself known in our lives.

The deceiver gets to work early on in scripture, seemingly within hours of Eve’s creation out of Adam’s side, sewing seeds of mistrust and doubt into their minds; finding a particular weakness that he could exploit.  “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks Eve, ignoring her nearby partner Adam, the one who was actually around to hear God give his short list of rules.[4]

“No,” Eve responds, “we can eat the fruit of almost all the trees in the garden, there’s just one, the one in the middle of the garden, that God said we couldn’t eat from, in fact, I don’t think we’re even supposed to touch it, or we’ll die.”

“Die!?!” the serpent snorted, “No way!  God wouldn’t kill you over some silly fruit, but he knows that if you eat of it, you’ll gain knowledge, you’ll have your eyes open, you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil. God hasn’t told you the whole truth,” he goes on, “you can have it all, all you have to do is eat this delicious, beautiful piece of fruit.”[5]

And eat they do.  The tempter invited them to question God’s wisdom and resolve, he cracked open within them the thought that they too could be like God, and with that, they fell into the trap, ate the fruit, and had their eyes opened to the difference between good and evil.  Genesis tells us the first thing noticed what their nakedness, but I doubt that puritanical American opinions on the human body is the gift that came from the forbidden fruit.  Instead, it seems that their nakedness was a metaphor for their vulnerability.  They now knew good from evil, they knew that the serpent had led them to temptation and they had made a mistake.  They longed for the goodness of God’s perfect vision for them, lost in the moment of temptation.

Fast forward to Matthew, and we find the tempter, personified in a new way, this time as the devil, seeking out Jesus’ particular weaknesses in the wilderness.  The story doesn’t tell us how long Jesus had been in the desert when the devil showed up, though you could read it as if all of this is happening on the fortieth day.  Whether it is day two or day forty, the truth remains that the fasting Jesus was hungry.  The easiest entry point for Satan was through food, but take notice of the subtlety of his work.  Satan doesn’t begin by hitting Jesus’ growling stomach, but rather seeks to crack the perfect relationship between the Father and the Son.  In effect, he wants to test whether or not Jesus believed the voice that spoke at his baptism, “you are my son, whom I love.”

If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “then why are you out here starving to death?  Command these stones to become bread.”

When that didn’t work, he moved on to further test the relationship of the Godhead.  “If you are the Son of God, and if your Father loves you so much, then certainly he’ll catch you when you fall.  Throw yourself off the top of the Temple and watch as he sends an army of angels to catch you.”  Jesus is not swayed.

Realizing that Jesus’ divinity is nothing to mess with, finally, the devil focuses his attention back on Jesus’ humanity, aiming for that part that lies deep within all of us: that piece that seeks after power and glory.  From the top of a high mountain, Satan shows Jesus every kingdom in the world, every stockpile of gold and jewels, every country club membership, every hundred-foot yacht and says, “Worship me, and this can all be yours.”

In the end, Jesus doesn’t just know good from evil, he is good – perfect goodness.  He withstands the temptations of Satan by placing his full trust in the Father; something he’ll have to do again late one Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane and again on Friday morning in the court of Pontius Pilate and again just after noon as he hangs gasping for breath on a cross.

As the Collect for this week makes clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus does not make us immune to the work of the tempter.  Even now, he knows the particular weakness of each of us.  He knows our insecurities, he knows our vices and our areas of excessive pride, and he will not stop in attempting to exploit them in order to turn us away from our relationship with God.  The truth of the matter is, the tempter will succeed more often than not, but the Good News is that the God who created us, vulnerabilities and all, is mighty to save.  Again and again, he’ll receive us back into his arms and recreate us as his beloved children.  Again and again, he’ll welcome us back into fullness of life.  You will be tempted today, I guarantee it, but rest assured that God stands beside you as a merciful and high priest ready to forgive and restore you.  Amen.


[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 174.

[3] Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, 237-8.

[4] Note that Genesis 3:6 suggests that Adam and Eve have been together through this whole story.

[5] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft/axpx?post=1488 (accessed 3/3/14).