Here's a morning prayer sermon I preached at the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee, TN on November 28, 2012. Click here for the video.
Luke 19: 1-10
Orange-leafed trees are blown wholly free,
their trunks exposed. All gnarls can be seen.
Nakedness is our cold call in this season ahead
as we wait for Christ’s coming—king and baby.
Why did Zaccheus climb the tree?
His curiosity proved costly:
Giving money to the poor was just the half
of what a dinner with the Son of Man would mean.
Did Zaccheus know that his gift could
never be enough? His holiness fell short.
And yet salvation, impossibly, came:
though he was no young and rich ruler,
who, striving for perfection, left (un)spent.
Christ’s loving storm removes the leaves from
even our most secreted branches.
The wind picks up. A hum of voices nears.
Do we know who is coming? Really?
And still we hide above the hushed crowd
hoping that our status quo will hold.
But we cannot evade his recognition
or his terrible warm call to serve.
There is nothing to say but yes
to set a table and feast on forgiveness.
The Lord’s presence clothes our bare weakness
with His reckless generosity. We
respond only to learn a holy lesson:
that the giving of half our store to the poor
must always fail some crucial test.
And yet we commit to giving more.
Sated, Zaccheus too would serve more still.
Changed, we resist Jesus’ departure
for a final ascent up the mount before
his descent into waiting Jerusalem.
Quiet, full, and with Advent’s space ahead
we climb that sycamore again for a new view
not to hide, but now to see need waiting
as the generous invitation that it always is.
We need a graceful tree so we may see.
[Click here for the video.] Today we celebrate Philip, a deacon and evangelist of the early church. His actions issue an uncomfortable challenge to us liturgy-loving Episcopalians. In fact, Philip is rather strange to us. He takes off into the wilderness after a word from an angel, jumps into the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch and preaches, I mean preaches, the good news. Then, apparently ignoring the eunuch’s perfectly valid question about what’s preventing him from being baptized (oh, I don’t know -- a nine-month catechumenate class, a sponsor, an alb, the examination and baptismal covenant, a blessing of the water, some chrism, the Paschal candle, definitely a priest to preside), they both plunge into a nearby waterhole for a bath. (I’m not sure there was a Trinitarian formula in there, either.)
Sure, sure. That was the early church. They did crazy stuff back then. We can’t just go around baptizing whomever at whichever body of water we happen across, making disciples of all nations, teaching them about Jesus’ commandments . . . Oh yeah: the Great Commission. That pesky Great Commission.
What prevents me from being baptized? None of us wants to answer, “The church.” Yet sometimes that seems to be how we respond. Gabi and Jorge are Mexican immigrants living outside Portland, Oregon. They didn’t carry their marriage certificate north, which means they couldn’t prove that they were married to the local Roman Catholic priest when it came time to baptize their daughter Ana. This was a problem without a solution for all involved, and so Gabi and Jorge knocked on the nearby Episcopal church’s door instead, distraught. All seemed to be going well until it became obvious that the couple expected a private baptism on a Saturday a couple weeks away, on Ana’s first birthday. The prayer book expects all baptisms to be public and ideally to be performed on five particular Sundays a year. The next date fell some months away. What would you do? What would Philip do? Philip’s fearless evangelism serves an active, even uncontrollable Spirit at work in the world around us. A master teacher was nearing death. Her students were very concerned. One finally asked her, “What will we do once you’re gone? To whom will we turn?” The teacher looked about her, taking in the anxious stares of her pupils. Behind them she could see the far bank and hear the coursing current of their valley’s river. “All I’ve been doing these many years was sitting on the riverbank handing you river water. When I die, I hope you will notice the river.” I wonder if as a priest some day I’ll ever feel like I’m sitting beside a river of God’s grace handing out the sacraments to a polite line of Episcopalians but we’re all forgetting to notice the river? I think at times I’ll feel, probably because some of my parishioners will feel, that my primary job is to service the church’s liturgy before I serve God and the Trinity’s unpredictable Spirit. I’m going to pass by some baptisms if I fall into that sort of thinking, because I’ll be forgetting to notice the source of love from which we all, as a church, quench our thirst. Of course, God’s grace is all around us, not tied up in a lonely river coursing through the spiritual landscape of our lives. But if that’s the case, we people of God ought not be tied up in our churches alone. There’s plenty of gas-guzzling chariots full of confused passengers out there. We just need more of us out in the wilderness pointing out to folks the refreshing, saving waters around them. Noticing font after font and after font that God provides for us inside and outside church doors.
The Episcopal Church offers candidates a beautiful, powerful baptismal ceremony filled with covenantal words to live by. We have structured our very Christian identity around the sacrament of Holy Baptism. We’re talking about an indissoluble bond that God is establishing. This is serious stuff, which is why it’s a great idea to run a 9-month catechumenate program. But a funny thing happens when we consider more closely what a high view of baptism entails: two opposing approaches emerge. One makes us comfortable: it involves careful preparation of the candidate and attention to detail while planning the liturgy. But a high view of baptism also suggests we don’t wait another minute to baptize someone who asks for it and understands its meaning, at least as much as any of us can understand the mystery of God’s impossible grace. What prevents me from being baptized? Heck if I know! Let’s do this! Who am I, Lord, to do otherwise? Let’s say you’ve spent weeks planning a baptismal service. You finish baptizing the folks who have been preparing months for this moment, and then you ask the congregation: Who else feels called to be baptized right now in the cool waters of God’s grace? When in return you hear a Spirit-filled “Baptize me!,” and you start getting worried about the propriety of your question, lean on the promise of an indissoluble bond established by God and let the Spirit do the rest. (Then tell your bishop.)
All of us, not just future priests, are called by Jesus Christ to get out there, I mean out there in the wilderness bringing the stranger to baptism, pointing out the wonders of God’s love like there’s no tomorrow. This is the good news: God’s love is a ridiculous, all-in, always surprising kind of love, and God loves everybody, including you. What is your salvation to you? Where is its joy? Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded you. And remember, Jesus is with you always. His river is ever-flowing, and it will cleanse us, every one.
At ten I faced its rolling waves
mesmerized by the promise of
days spent bodyboarding, eating
cheez whiz on crackers, tracking sand
into the trailer, simple meals at night.
The sand shifted mightily from year to
year: the steps to the beach at times
dangled precariously above ground.
Other trips it seemed the whole shore
swelled wave-like through the back door.
Many similar waters did that.
My friend’s beach trailer sold, but by then
high school had swirled us away.
More time still: my wife and I
overnighting in a beach cottage. Walking
the slick shore we happen upon
—as if I’d walked into my past—
that same cliff, those curls, lonesome now
with the trailers gone. The sand is down,
I can tell, even without the stair marker.
I remain fixed there
uncomprehending the loss
unsettled by the sand swells.
That hidden cove haunts:
cleaving pitifully to its sandy trove
protected by a gnarled cliff that spun off
days’ worth of tight left-breaking curls, the
morning waves fish-filled aquariums,
so quickly drained.
I gave this sermon today in Spanish at the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee, TN (video and full text here, English text below).
We saints are going to judge the world? Judge angels?! That’s what Paul claims, and it’s pretty intimidating. Good judgement comes only with God’s help. It requires time, prayer, listening and discerning God’s Spirit as She wends her way through the texts of our lives. Most of all, good judgement requires practice, and our churches can offer a space to learn and grow in our wisdom as we seek to live in this world as God would have us live.
So let’s practice our judgement on a tragedy that took place 11 years ago today. Where were you when the Twin Towers crashed down? How might God judge this crushing blow: the deaths of almost 3,000 people, the destruction of dozens of buildings, the lasting devastation to the economy? How might God judge the American response? The outpouring of compassion for victims, but also the flags flying from windowsills, anti-Muslim hate crimes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Hindsight provides clarity here, but also complication. Are we safer now? What could we have done better? I hear God’s Spirit speaking in Paul’s biting challenge for us: Why not rather be wronged? Really?! Why not turn the other cheek, if you may? September 11 presented us with a problem that could not be solved. The lives were lost forever, the buildings crumbled. Our sense of immunity done in. What if we had but mourn the fallen, swept away the wreckage, began rebuilding, learned what we could from the fruits of hatred and violence, and renewed our nation’s efforts toward justice and peace? THAT is truly a new song that God has given us to sing from the rooftops and from the rubble.
Christians have something to teach American society, if only we’d first live it out in our own lives: God is the ultimate arbiter and granter of righteous judgement. Not humans. As Christians, our help comes from the Lord. And in the face of suffering and violence, we find our rightful place and role at Jesus’s side, whether as a disciple on dusty roads or a grieving mother at the foot of the cross.
Why not rather be wronged? To be wronged is to be made helpless, to be brought low, to be made weak. Like Christ on the cross. God gave us the capacity to judge, to discern right living. Might we hold this gift lightly in one hand, and in the other, the terrible choice to be wronged.
Tonight the NASA lander named Curiosity will make a daring landing on Mars. After $2.5 billion dollars and eight months of space flight, Curiosity’s mission will now hang on a mere seven minutes of intricately sequenced activity to slow the 5000 pound craft from its blistering 13,000 mile/hr speed to just THREE miles/hour as it touches down. The goal: to find signs of past or present life on the red planet. Given the scale of the expense and thought involved, I think it’s safe to conclude that we humans really love explanations. Especially explanations about who we are and how we came to be.
Now I’m all for science and space exploration and would definitely have wanted to be an astronaut if I thought I could fit in a rocketship, but I fear that our curiosity for the scientific explanation of our world can obscure the search for the deeper truth about who we are. For these deeper truths, an exploration of 3500 years of human yearning for God through scripture, tradition, and reason may be more fruitful than a 127 million mile space odyssey.
The folks following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee in today’s gospel reading thought Jesus had some explaining to do. Listen closely to how Jesus redirects their curiosity. They start with an understandable question: “When did you get here?” They knew Jesus hadn’t gotten into the boat with his disciples after the miraculous feeding of five thousand, and they knew there had only been one boat on the shore. So . . . how’d you get here, Jesus? What, did you walk on water?! Ha. Well, wouldn’t you know it, he did. If Jesus was about signs, then this was the chance to bring up another one, even better than the last. But instead, Jesus answers: “You’re looking for me not because you saw signs but because that bread filled you.” So let’s take this response apart. First, Jesus ignores their question. Not sure if anyone has experienced that one before with Jesus or God? Fortunately, when we Christians ask dumb questions, the worst thing that happens is that we’re ignored. And then we get an answer to a question we hadn’t known to ask, which is what happens here. Jesus says: “You’re looking for me, not for signs. And let me tell you something else about yourself: that bread filled you like nothing before.” Now this truth must have unsettled the crowd, but what do we do when we feel uncomfortable? Press on!
“Okay, Jesus, you’re right, the bread was delicious. How did you do it? We want to do it too!” Tell us your secret recipe! This inclination for knowledge is all-too familiar to us today. Information is fast becoming the essential currency of our daily lives. We’re feeling increasingly brainless without our smartphone crutches! So Jesus answers, “You want to know the secret? Believe in God’s chosen one.” Now he’s just playing coy with us, they think. What’s he hiding? they wonder. Believe in the Messiah? A lot of them probably did. The Jewish idea that there would be a messiah, God’s anointed one, who would restore the monarchy and kick out the occupiers, was an idea that had been around for hundreds of years. So this seems like another evasive answer. Sure, okay, fine -- believe in a messiah. But if this guys claiming to be that same messiah, we need a little more proof. You think you’re the messiah, Jesus? They say. “What are you gonna do to persuade us, then? We need more signs! How about this -- can you do what Moses did with the manna?” They’re very persistent.
Now I don’t see Jesus as sighing here in frustration or disappointment. I think he sees this instead as a top-rate teaching moment. I think he’s even smiling a bit on the inside, but I imagine him keeping a poker face. He responds, “My Father gives this bread, not Moses. You ate the bread of God yesterday.”
Now they hear him, they really hear him. “My Father? Who are you?” You don’t talk like this unless you’re the real deal . . . or you’re itching to get stoned for blasphemy. Fresh off the lakeside feeding, they’re inclined to ask for more, and they’re finally in touch with their real hunger. Not for more explanations this time, just more bread. “Sir, give us this bread always,” they say. “I’d be delighted,” Jesus responds, smiling: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The truth in this disjointed conversation requires listening, really listening. The people finally got it once they began letting go of their need for explanations. Explanations give us control. But living in control is not the Christian way -- and I say this thoughtfully, and with great sadness as a recovering control freak. Jesus speaks truth with love to the people, and they finally hear him. ************
Today’s Hebrew scripture reading adds another layer to our ability to hear when the truth is spoken. To summarize the story: Israel’s armies are away at war, and King David’s stayed behind in his cushy palace. He sees Bathsheba, and she’s beautiful, so he calls her in and impregnates her. One of the many problems with this is that Bathsheba is married, so David commands his army general to put her husband on the front lines and he’s killed. Then David marries Bathsheba. Problem solved? Hardly. Rather, the problems are just starting, beginning with Nathan, who is sent from the LORD with a disturbing story of a powerful man who exploits a poor man. David, being an upright, just ruler and all, is enraged at this powerful man’s actions...until Nathan replies: “You are the man!” David didn’t see that one coming.
We are blind to many of our privileges. And we must depend on those without a particular privilege to point out to us what we have — both so that we may be more grateful for our blessings, and to become more aware of how our use of privilege negatively affects others. The powerful need to hear the truth spoken in love by the powerless. This is not just the stuff of the Arab spring, but rather intimately bound up in our own lives.
Last weekend I attended a training for Hispanic ministry leaders in the diocese. The facilitator ran the training in English and Spanish, which meant that those who were not bilingual had to be patient with frequent pauses in their comprehension. The trainer offered us a beautiful way to experience these moments of confusion: as prayer. She said, “I invite you to offer your discomfort as a prayer to God in thanksgiving that through a bilingual program all can be included together in this sacred time and space.”
Discomfort, huh? That awkward, out-of-control feeling of not understanding with no explanation to be found. This is the Christian way, when our discomfort and confusion can bring comfort and understanding to another.
I invite you to sit in on a 1 pm Spanish language service here sometime soon. It’s beautiful and full of life and blessed with kids — and if you don’t speak Spanish, you won’t understand parts of it. That’s alright. You may just find a deeper truth hidden behind those stalwart English words we’ve come to know and rely upon for so long. You may hear something new in the sort of off-beat shakers wielded by children at the altar singing the offertory song in a pitch you don’t know but can come to love; you may hear a larger, deeper truth of our church’s calling to unity under one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. You may hear a new riff speaking to who you, who we, are. Who are we, St. Paul’s?
At 10:30 tonight we’ll wait fourteen minutes for the signals from the Mars lander Curiosity to reach Earth. Fourteen uncomfortable minutes. Many of us will want to know so badly what happened: did the lander make it? For better or worse, we’ll receive loads of explanations over the time ahead.
Trust, instead, that which has no explanation, because it is a very old and very good truth: I am the bread of life, says Jesus, and to know and believe and to experience this is really who you are. Listen for that truth within our discomfort, and find there, my sisters and brothers, the good, good news of God.
How can we get more people to come to church? Hispanic ministry leaders from across the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego recently participated in a training addressing that enticing question. The answer, shared Kaleidoscope Institute trainer Patricia Millard, is bible study: with a twist.
Rev. Millard, a priest in the Diocese of Oregon, visited San Diego July 27-28 for two trainings on leadership for evangelism in Hispanic ministry. Eleven attended the first training, held at St. Andrew's in Lake Elsinore, including members of St. Stephen's in Menifee and St. John's in Indio. Fifteen attended the second training, held at St. Phillip's in Lemon Grove, including the rector of Good Shepherd in Bonita, Suzi Holding (Canon to the Ordinary), and Anthony Guillen (missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries for the national Episcopal church).
The Bible study begins with a conversation around respectful communication guidelines that ask participants to listen with and speak from their hearts as well as their minds. Using the coming Sunday's gospel reading, a volunteer reads the passage once aloud. Then each participant is offered space to share a word or image from the text that comes to mind before inviting the next person to share. The passage is read again, and then the sharing/inviting process begins again, this time answering the question: "How does the presence of Jesus shape our ministry?" The text is read a final time and participants respond to the question, "What is this text inviting me to do, be, or change?" The study is concluded with a group prayer.
What's different about this approach? And how can it build the church? First, it's intentionally grounded in mutual respect for one another. Participants agree to listen carefully, trust ambiguity, and examine their own assumptions as others share. The process is also guided by mutual invitation, which grants each person the opportunity to share or pass and also the privilege of inviting the next person to speak. Each round of questions encourages more personal and practical applications of the reading in the participant's life. Prayer rounds out and blesses the exercise.
Increasingly, those who enter our churches -- especially those of younger generations -- expect to "belong" before they either "believe" or "behave." This can be frustrating to the BCP-wielding veterans in our pews. Through mutual invitation, this Bible study allows for such full participation while keeping the conversation closely tied to scripture and its impact on our own lives. This safe space where one's own person can encounter the biblical text often leads to authentic and powerful spiritual experiences. And relationships are formed.
Relational, authentic, and power sharing ministries are critical to future church growth, asserts the Rev. Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute. But they must take place within a context that is sensitive and responsive to a variety of cultural expectations. This issue came up often in San Diego's recent trainings.
Take the leadership self-assessment, for example. Most of the English speakers felt comfortable diving into this sort of personally-directed listing of spiritual gifts. The Spanish speakers, however, appreciated Rev. Millard's invitation to work in groups so that one's partner could help identify the gifts of another.
This steeper involvement of the community in one's personal understanding leads to another frequent challenge in cross-cultural communication. Spanish speakers often feel more hesitant to respond to an invitation with a clear "no" for fear of hurting another's feelings, or worse, embarrassing him or her. While many English speakers have been taught to use "I statements" when sharing feelings and to take responsibility for one's own emotions, Spanish speakers tend to take more responsibility for the well being of others. This can lead to a situation in which both parties intend to be respectful but end up coming across as either offensively direct or frustratingly duplicitous.
The key, claims Rev. Millard, is not to expect someone else to change their culturally familiar words and activities for us. Instead, listen carefully and ask for help when we don't understand something.
A most fascinating example of such intercultural communication occurs within bilingual and bicultural individuals and groups. Language is the primary medium through which we live out our particular culture. Those who speak more than one language most often still depend on a single language for certain emotions or activities. Prayer feels more comfortable in one language. Business may be more comfortably conducted in another. By conducting the two trainings in both English and Spanish, Rev. Millard allowed her bilingual participants to bring their full beings to the table and learn more about themselves in the process.
Rev. Millard preaches in a similar manner. She'll begin a homily in one language and continue for about a third of the sermon before starting over in the other language. She'll alternate several more times before ending both. Even more impressive and intriguing, these no-notes sermons often carry substantially different messages. This type of preaching or workshop facilitation challenges our legalistic understandings of how language interpretation ought to be done. Instead of a word-for-word translation that often misses the larger cultural worlds that these words inhabit, she recognizes that each language community has different spiritual challenges and gifts and speaks directly and specifically to each in the appropriate language.
This means, however, that there will be times with monolingual speakers won't understand what's going on. Rev. Millard asks her congregation and workshop participants to offer up these moments of incomprehension as prayers to God in thanksgiving that by their gracious patience all can be included in these moments' sacred time and space.
At the Coronado Fourth of July parade today a line of four somber women walked the route holding signs with the picture of their sons who had been killed in action. Some veterans group had passed ahead of them, so folks were on their feet clapping, but when the mothers approached silence grew. There was an awkwardness and confusion, too. And respect. But when wounded veterans next limped by, the crowd raised up a relieved cheer, again certain that acclamation was the appropriate response.
Then, breathtakingly, a squadron of high school students in army fatigues marched into view without any explanation for their military affiliation. Did they know whom they followed? Their mothers, our mothers, the world's mothers, with a message for all of us: war tears apart and does not remend. A sobering note amid a sea of patriotic revelry.
SPOILER ALERT: Don't read on if you haven't read all three novels!
The Hunger Games presents us with a easily believable version of our future: cataclysmic war and environmental collapse sizzle democratic society, leaving a media-savvy dictatorship to repress the survivors for the sole benefit of the Capitol of Panem. Suzanne Collins’ portrayal of the politics behind tyranny and rebellion rang true. A divide-and-conquer strategy leaves the country’s outlying districts beholden to the metropole, and the grisly televised sensation of the Hunger Games keeps the Capitol’s masses entertained and the districts’ residents terrified. The rebellion leans also on broadcast media to unite the oppressed behind the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution, eventually beating the regime at its own belligerent game. A politically astute allegory of today’s haves and have nots, indeed.
But one aspect of this post-apocalyptic world escaped Collins’ imagination: the life of faith. Of course, there are reasons for its omission: fear of offending those who care little for religion, or the sheer page constraints of an already hefty trilogy. Unfortunately, the story’s silence on issues of faith left a critical dimension of the characters’ depth and believability unrealized.
This is important to me as a fan of young adult fiction, and as a Christian studying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. While I believe that faith in any of the world’s great religions would have lended punch and drama to the narrative, I am able to speak only from a Christian perspective in what follows.
Perhaps the author thought bringing up God would run counter to the suspension of reality she sought in these novels. But the contemporary connections she penned in are unmistakable: the obvious geographical and political references to the United States, the traditional nursery rhymes, the fashion aesthetics, and above all, the technology. The Hunger Games present a world that could be ours in just decades’ time. So how and when did religion—or just plain spirituality—scamper off the scene? What might its inclusion have added to this compelling read?
First, faith strengthens resolve. What was Katniss doing in the Justice Building after she’d just volunteered as tribute in place of her sister? Freaking out, understandably. But a belief in something larger than herself may have helped calm her during those tragic moments. A particularly Christian parallel to her self-sacrificial choice can be found in the decision of Jesus to offer himself to the governing authorities as a model of a life lived with moral integrity, regardless of the cost. Contemplating Jesus’ action may have helped Katniss understand her altruistic (and desperate) move as part of a Love larger than what she felt for Prim. Sharing these observations with the reader would have revealed a new side to Katniss and foreshadowed the role she’d play in the social upheaval to come. Instead, in this instance and in others we are led by Katniss through moral decision making that is uncritical, even emotionally detached (consider her assassination of President Coin, an ethically problematic action at best).
Faith also adds moral drama. This could have cut several ways. Maybe Peeta struggled within a restrictive religious upbringing that made Katniss’ libertine aura that much more attractive. Or resounding existential questions around the twin facts of an omnipotent God and a devastatingly evil police state could swirl beneath the plot’s surface. What about the wrestling with the dilemma of a religiously-prohibited action, such as murder, in the face of a “game” that demanded it? Collins left these and countless other sharp subplots in her imagination’s quiver.
Finally, faith offers realism. The Hunger Games nailed the political dimension of its narrative, and tackled terrible psychological trauma with care. But by failing to mention how faith might have played a role in the ability of characters to withstand violence, survive grief, and sustain hope, Collins missed an opportunity to delve deeper into the sources of human motivation and resilience. Instead, readers were invited to assume that Gale’s cold anger, Katniss’ impulsive courage, and Peeta’s endearing and enduring love were all they needed to make it through Panem’s maelstrom of violence. This authorial choice resulted in an unnecessary hollowness of character that called the larger realism of the narrative into question.
Collins wrote a superb young adult trilogy in The Hunger Games. There are plenty of reasons to keep faith off the story board, but in so doing she missed a chance to flesh out her characters, intensify the drama, and strengthen their resolve. Perhaps she thought these drawbacks acceptable so as to avoid the backlash from people of faith that might have come from an unsavory portrayal of religion in the novels. Take The Golden Compass, the first of Philip Pullman’s sci-fi trilogy: its lavishly imaginative and alluring plot would have certainly scored three screenplays if it weren’t for the stiffly, almost gratuitous anti-religious message of the books. Who knows? If we faithful are so sensitive as to bemoan the lack of a faith in a post-apocalyptic thriller, perhaps Collins decided God needed to take a fictional break from us in the future as well.
Today I thinned my carrot and lettuce seedlings. This is a kind of pruning that leaves the leafy survivors more room to thrive. What can I uproot from my life that will give air to that which God hopes will grow?
The trouble began with a hammer. Rick had volunteered to take on a weekend remodel job for his boss to earn some extra cash on the side. Things had been tight lately at home: His wife Gail had lost her job as a school district admin in the latest round of budget cuts. Their two girls were both in college and living at home. Tuition sure had risen since he was in school. Then that blasted hammer slipped out of his hands at the wrong moment, smashing his customer’s Italian vase into more pieces than seemed possible. His first feeling was confusion: the vase’s explosion seemed disproportionate somehow. Like it had been cracked already.
Things went downhill fast after that. “One too many mistakes, Rick. Sorry to have to do this to you, but I’ve got to let you go.” Unemployment checks insufficient to sustain the precariously balanced household financial deck of cards. COBRA was too expensive, so Rick and Gail opted out and put the kids on the school’s health plan instead. Then Gail discovered her tumor.
Yea, it had been a rough ride. So when his friend offered his fishing boat to Rick for a solo overnight trip, he accepted gratefully, relieved to have a moment free from the anxiety that had blanketed the house these past months. The weather was fine as he pulled out of the bay, the early morning quiet interrupted only by the occasional sea lion bark and gull cry. But as the coast faded from view the wind picked up, the swells began to roll. It was time to return, it had to be, his gut told him. But Rick felt frustrated that even this small gift of time had been taken away from him. It couldn’t hurt to keep going a while longer. He turned parallel to the coast as a precaution, he rationalized.
The sunset was blindingly spectacular, and the waves seemed to calm a bit: or was that just what he wanted to see? As dusk eased into night, the storm reengaged forcefully. Soon water was splashing over the side. Now it was time to go home. But then a too-big wave, a wave from nowhere, an inexplicable wave, tossed the boat nearly on its side. The engine gave out, swamped. The boat’s radio crackled with static: Had his friend mentioned something about that, he wondered?
Adrift, Rick had lost his way. Dangerously. Panic set in quickly, but not before his anger bloomed fresh and raw. This was not fair. None of this was. “What do you want from me, God?,” he screamed. Then chuckled in spite of himself, knowing that he hadn’t spent much time with God lately. His choice. But really: his life has exploded too loudly, too brashly---like that cursed Italian vase.
Does God cause us to suffer? Job lost his livestock and children and health. True, God didn’t lay a finger on Job, but God let Satan loose on him with precious few caveats. In our reading from Job today, God bellows a litany of omnipotence. So what was God doing, then, while Job suffered? The psalmist continues this idea: the LORD speaks and the waves rise high by stormy wind. And doesn’t Paul through his list of trials suggest that God was behind them as some sort of masochistic power play? We feel forsaken at times by those we love, by nature, by God. These times call for silence while grief rocks and roils.
But God did restore Job’s fortunes. Two-fold, in fact. God’s action was life-giving, redemptive, saving.
Paul is a maniac for the gospel. He’s asking the Corinthians to collect a generous contribution for the Jerusalem church, so he’s pulling out all the stops, including a list of his persecutions. He is persuading, not complaining. Paul leads with the power of God’s loving grace, not judgemental punishment.
My brothers and sisters, here is the good news: But God is not behind our suffering, but rather beside us, calming the storms that will be calmed and sitting next to us when they will not. God responds to our suffering.
Job’s fortunes were restored two-fold, but his children were not brought back to life. Job spent the rest of his life grieving those dark, dark days, even as his newly blessed life blossomed around him. How can we know why we suffer? We stand before the sheer mystery of God and realize all our words contain a radical contingency. God is with us on the cross in Jesus and at the foot of the cross in Mary. Silent in the face of pain. Suffering is a mystery that is our lot in this blessedly difficult life. God is not behind our suffering, but beside us in it, loving us and holding us and crying with us. And that is good news indeed.
The rain fell thickly. Water sloshed on the deck, drenching his shoes, wetting his heels, now slowing his shins as he shuffled through it. Rick couldn’t tell whether it was fresh or saltwater, just that his time may be up. Maybe it would be better to end it all. No one would know he jumped overboard. They’d know about the storm. He mulled over what he had to lose.
Gail. The kids. Something flickered inside of him. An image splashed across his mind: the four of them riding together down a waterslide a few years back, before the troubles had started. The look on Gail’s face: I can’t believe you got me to do this. Rick’s wily smile in response. The crash into the pool at the bottom. Pure child-like delight. As he gripped white-knuckled to the wheel he gingerly peeked deeper into himself. Past the shame. Past the guilt. Past that crust of numbness. Past the despair. Past these . . . and then in his mind’s eye a door came into view, revealing a man sleeping soundly on a cushion. “Wake up!,” he cried, all pride gone. “Help! Where have you been? Don’t you care that I’m about to die?!” The man rose and smiled, embraced him, and said, “I’ve missed you. Be still. Be still. Be still.” Rick dropped to his knees and cried.
The coast guard cutter’s horn sliced through this reverie; Gail had called Rick’s friend, concerned, earlier that night. Rick found himself home more quickly than he could have hoped, safe. A calm warmth radiated from within. “Weren’t you worried, dad?,” his daugher asked. “I was, until I cried for help.” He fell asleep then, surrounded in slumber by those whom he loved. He was loved even more greatly, inexplicably, still.
I'm coming off an exchange with a blog editor about a recent piece I wrote, and appreciate what came of the process. I wish there were more opportunities for similar feedback in our daily lives (although this could quickly become very annoying!) I found that my writing really improved as I was encouraged to iron our the wrinkles in the text I knew were there but hoped no one would notice. Perhaps this is an invitation to begin some form of the daily examen, a fixture of the Ignatian spiritual exercises.
I could write about Robin every day, especially given the current theme I'm working with: growth. But I'll try my best to hold back! Today she said her Aunt Kayti's name for the first time, and also "lamb" and "rabbit." What I loved most though were the deep, almost hysterical belly laughs she belted out while I gave her some bedtime strawberry kisses. Those bell-like rings will stay with me the rest of the night.
Growth has a lot to do with patience. I noticed this in myself today while getting to know a church member: in the past I think I would have been interested in moving the conversation faster to the "punch line," the "important" part where we get stuff planned so we could get stuff done. But I've been learning just how critical relationships are, so I'm slowing down.
The months between the liturgical seasons of Pentecost and Advent are often referred to as "ordinary time." Green vestments and linen are used, perhaps to signify the slow and steady growth encouraged within this bounded space. Which reminds me: time to water the garden!
It’s hard not to feel a bit jealous. Saddleback Church recently launched the Daniel Plan, a church-based diet regimen that includes small group accountability sessions, expert opinion, recipes, and exercise classes before Sunday services, and the program appears to be working: some 15,000 participants have lost a collective 260,000 pounds to date. An impact on that scale would make any organization proud. This organization happens to be a church.
Of course, this isn’t what church is about. Right? Like a good Episcopalian, the notion of church as self-help seminar makes me deeply uncomfortable. But I can’t deny the presence of real spirit—dare I say Holy Spirit—behind the scenes. Atrophied bodies wearied by years of unhealthy eating are being restored to wholeness, to God’s greater glory.
The steadily insistent drone of church decline whines on in the background of many mainline minds. When will the next generation walk through our doors? They may never enter, many of us worry. This is because many of our churches have largely remained on the sidewalks outside the mainstream cultural arenas where the tech-savvy and media-overloaded milennials work and play.
There’s a reason for this, of course. The allure of cultural relevancy has drawn many churches down a theology-diluting, non-challenging path of Christian worship that can make church feel more like a rock concert or a shopping mall than a sacred place of prayer. Straddling the sacred and the secular is risky business for churches. Not being a Saddleback Church member, I’m not in the position to comment on its place along the cultural relevance spectrum. Given its enormous Sunday attendance, however, they’re certainly meeting folks at least halfway between the day-to-day grind and the transcendent.
By and large, many of our mainline churches aren’t structured for such liturgical relaxation, and that’s a good thing: traditional worship can keep mission drift safely at bay. For the Episcopal Church, our weekly celebration of the Eucharist presumably turns off many, as does the strange vestments and not-of-this-century hymnody. Perhaps because we have a clear sense of ourselves, at least through the lens of our common worship, we may have lost over time a concern for attempting the messy but necessary work of helping make sense of what we do for the newcomer. This includes recognizing the me-first and more-is-better cultural milieu in which we live and move and have our being. Preaching is a critical moment for such cultural awareness and interpretation work for new and seasoned parishioner alike.
That said, what can mainline churches learn from the Daniel Plan’s success to date? These days mainstream culture is much more likely to co-opt Christian symbols and celebrations rather than the other way around: the Christmas liturgical season became a shopping season; apocalypse is a blockbusting movie money maker in its tidal, glacial, bestial, and cosmic forms; and Jesus appears on Saturday Night Live to chide Tim Tebow’s embarrassingly public displays of piety. But the Daniel Plan is doing the opposite: it is sidling into the $60 billion weight loss market with ease and influence. In the process, it may be a freshly effective evangelical medium.
See, the genius of Saddleback is its recognition that everyone knows how to lose weight: eat better and exercise more. But few do this on their own. Instead, humans need each other for accountability and fun. They need community. As public finances wither and mall security forces expand, our truly public spaces continue to shrink. As we rely more on Facebook for our socializing, we crave face-to-face relationships. Church is one of the last bastions of honest-to-God community left in the modern postindustrial world. The Daniel Plan proves that church offers something that science or society alone cannot offer: an accountability and meaning-making system that transforms lives. Alcoholics Anonymous came to this insight decades ago in its insistence that participants embrace a Higher Power. Importantly, Saddleback incorporated expert medical opinion into its program design, a welcome example of the usefulness (rather than danger) of science vis-à-vis faith.
Modestly sized mainline churches ought not try to be something they aren’t: megachurches. But how might churches organize across an area (within a denomination, or ecumenically) to create more enticing programs on a more substantial scale? For example, why do so many churches run their own sparsely attended Vacation Bible Schools, when a pooling of nearby churches could offer kids more fun and more learning? And for the love of God, where are our small groups that meet during the week for Bible study or just some simple fellowship and prayer over dinner?
The Episcopal Church boasts liturgical content rich in meaning and sonorous in tone. Our embrace of reason alongside scripture and tradition keeps us importantly open to the ever-important science v. faith debate. Our willingness to find common ground through our practice of worship, while leaving space for different theological and political opinions, has enabled our church to weather recent ideological storms with some measure of flexibility and grace. But the sheer weight of what we do together, the seriousness with which we carry out our worship and praise, may have left many Episcopal churches flat-footed at a time when nimbleness reigns supreme. Perhaps a diet plan wouldn’t be so bad for us, either: exercising our cultural savvy and imagining new ways to be church may enliven a new century of work together, with God’s help.
Here's the text to a sermon given at the Episcopal Preaching Foundation's Preaching Excellence Conference in Richmond, Virginia May 27-31:
Advent One, Year B
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Christ Beside Us, Waiting
The dawn’s warm orange glow bathes Jerusalem. The men sit quietly in the shadow of the Mount of Olives, its western side as yet unwarmed by the morning sun. From their rocky vantage point over the olive trees they take in the spread of cemeteries before them, fading from view as the slope eases into the valley below. The horizon is broken by rugged hill lines, but the men’s attention remains drawn to the holy city’s daily awakening. Buildings constructed of local stone shine gold in the light. Gold thus centers the men’s sight on the Temple Mount, the centuries’ old site of sacred worship. Present political tension buzzes the air; past faithfulness intones chant-like from graves; future end-times expectation bears down upon the east-facing beautiful Golden Gate, the door through which the Messiah will enter on the Day of Judgment, as prophesied by Zechariah.
Good morning, Jerusalem: yesterday, today, tomorrow.
On the rocky mountain ledge we sit beside Jesus as his first four disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—ask their teacher when the stones of the temple’s stunning buildings will topple. Jesus concludes his warnings with these difficult lines: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus didn’t know how many more sunrises there would be.
We’re still waiting, and many of us are getting impatient. There is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche that seeks always to know what comes next. It’s a comfort and security thing. So when it comes to what happens next and finally, we’ve really got to know. This end times tension engages many of our coping mechanisms: denial, as embodied by the long and lavishly marketed Christmas (shopping) “season”; fear, as seen in the running tally of miscalculated “apocalypses,” the latest falling on May 21 of last year; and fascination, as imagined by the Left Behind book series.
But what about faithfulness? The liturgical season of Advent is the church’s look into-the-not-yet-risen-sun, the hopeful but still-shadowed space set apart by Christians for their generations-long watch for Christ.
We thus proclaim in faith, O Christ, that you are coming: vulnerable as a baby, victorious as a Messiah. Yet you are here, we also believe: surely in the Bible we meet you and your words which “will not pass away,” those words that lead us deeper into interior dark spaces in order to heal them. You are here in the single mom in need of a favor and the aunt with cancer, but also those with whom our souls yearn for reconciliation: the alcohol-abusing homeless man we judge, the infuriatingly smug politician we curse, the annoyingly smiley megachurch members we pity (while secretly envying their average Sunday attendance!) You are here as we listen in prayer for forgiveness, for reassurance, for sure and certain hope.
Christians follow the psalmist in singing: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides for ever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and for evermore.”
Indeed, Christian faithfulness rests squarely on biblical bedrock; the Hebrew Scriptures comprise the stories of God’s people struggling to maintain faith in a God for whose deliverance they often had to wait much longer than they would have preferred. This is no exception in today’s readings of Isaiah and the psalm. These texts lament the disaster that has befallen Judah, most likely Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. In its wake there is recorded an honest reckoning, corporate and penitential in character. There is also the heart-wrenching cry: “Stir up your might and come to save us!” This painfully honest introspection and painfully sincere expectation found their fulfillment in God’s faithfulness, in God’s restoration and deliverance. For the people of God faith became possible because of God’s faithfulness.
Paul, a faithful Jew, continued this Jewish tradition of interpreting the events of his day through the lens of the Hebrew Bible. His blinding encounter with the risen Christ drove this scriptural wrestling; his letters eventually became the earliest contributions to the baby New Testament. What it meant to live between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the final days gripped Paul’s attention, as can be seen from today’s letter to the Corinthian church. Paul asserted that by faith we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ will certainly return. But where is Christ in the meanwhile, and what is our relationship to him? How can we relate to Christ in this spiritually awkward in-between time?
Paul claims that Christ is coming and that Christ is here. We are “in” Christ Jesus by the grace of God, and this wholly encompassing, embodied quality to our relationship with Christ leads to enrichment “in speech and knowledge of every kind.” Such spiritual gifts thus strengthen us in our waiting for the “revealing of our Lord.” So Christ strengthens us through our membership in his body in order that we might have the spiritual resources to wait for his return. Whoa: there’s mystery there. God is good and faithful, we affirm, alongside all those who have heard and believed this spectacular Pauline claim over twenty centuries of Christian experience of Christ’s presence among us.
We know you are faithful to your people, O God -- and so we wait for you, especially in this season of Advent. We embrace the spaciousness of this spiritual landscape and face its shadowed, doubt-ridden uncertainties, its devastating call for honesty as we name and claim our personal and social sins. We corporately breathe, catching our breath and praying in this moment of ancient transition for clarity: of purpose, of vision, of love. Instead of striving to do more than we can handle, even when done in your Name, keeping us too busy to hear your saving word, in this introspective season we recognize the gift of grace that is to watch for you around us. We can only do such honest soul-searching in the light of your gracious presence. You are coming, and you are here beside us.
In these minutes before the sun crowns majestically over that blessed Mount, when the city’s saffron light-soaked veil yet drapes the landscape, in the moment when time itself has caught its breath—between night and dawn, between faithfulness and fulfillment—Jesus and his disciples sit steadily beside us on that solid rock-of-faith ledge: watching, and waiting, and longing, together with the church and its saints across time and space: watching and waiting for Christ.
"Don't be afraid to let the Holy Spirit surprise you." Famous last words, indeed! Our priest at St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego shared this encouragement with my wife Laurel and I as we considered which seminary to attend two years ago. Embracing the adventure and uncertainty of our first extended stay in the South, we enrolled that fall at the School of Theology at the University of the South.
We couldn't be happier to have made the choice to try something new, thanks to the Spirit's prompting, by becoming Masters of Divinity students in Sewanee, Tennessee. But seminary life is no breezy glass of sweet tea: it's challenging, rewarding, and at times, stressful. And that's just the academics! Our household financial situation became more complicated as well, especially given the marvelous gift at the birth of our daughter Robin during our first fall semester.
Gratefully our financial situation pencils out through a combination of support from our diocese, parish, seminary, outside scholarships, and the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM). In particular, SIM makes possible our child care. Laurel and I are both students, so we need to use the seminary's preschool about twenty hours a week. While we sometimes feel guilty for leaving Robin for so long, she loves all the playtime with her friends! (Sewanee is very family friendly.)
Thanks to SIM, Laurel and I will be able to graduate Sewanee, and hopefully be ordained next June (fingers crossed!), without the debilitating debt that constrains the ministry options of many newly minted priests who need to prioritize the paying back of their loans. We feel a call to parish and missionary work in struggling communities, and this is a call we'll be able to follow due to the generosity of SIM's donors. What a blessing to our family, and to the larger church!
O God, all-wise in love and keeper of knowledge, who invites us through Jesus Christ to be fools so that we may be saved; grant that students everywhere may persevere in their task with clearness of head and stoutness of spirit, so that all power and glory enabled in human understanding may be finally poured out onto you; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Softball playing with sixty percent kids, the rest semi-out of shape adults, on a chalked field with bases: then grilling in the park with my parents and fellow seminarians, perfect weather: this is the shape and taste of an Easter blessing.