Tuesday, December 20, 2011

sermon--Luke 1:26-38

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
* * *
Things are not as they seem.
Take angels, for example. What do you think of?
Sure, there’s the host singing in the account from Matthew, but “host” is the usual translation from the Hebrew word for “army.” When we call God the Lord of Hosts, we’re talking about a general at the head of a powerful army who can wipe our enemies—or us—out.

Not so pretty.
How many of you thought of something like this:

Or this:

How many of you thought of something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Yeah, no offense to our lovely friend down here by the altar, but it seems likely that angels don’t look like that. They have flaming swords to bar us from going back to Eden and they keep company with seraphim who are made up entirely of eyes and wings and they say things like “do not be afraid” when they show up—which suggests to me that they’re terrifying. Doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful, of course—there’s an awe to some kinds of beauty—but they’re not cute, they’re not pretty and softly-flowing, and they’re not as they seem.
The same can be said of Mother Mary. What do you think of when you think of the mother of Jesus? Something like this:

Or maybe something like this:

Or this:

That’s Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement and an advocate for justice.
Mary’s not what she seems either. For one thing, we don’t talk much about whether she had a choice when Gabriel showed up to tell her she was going to be the Mother of God. I suppose there might be a theological hair-split here, one that Larry and I seem to delight in arguing about—when God asks, is there really a choice? But it seems to me that we do. Pretty much every time the prophets were called by God to be prophets, they objected—“I’m too young” or “I can’t do that,” Jonah actually ran away—but then they finally said “yes.” Suggests to me that God’s argument is strong, as it ought to be, but that they could have said “no.” Opens up the story a bit if you consider that Mary could have said “no.”
But more than that, think about the bit we didn’t read today, the bit that follow’s Mary’s “yes”—I guess you can’t do that, since we didn’t read it. Here, let me. After Mary says “let it be with me according to your word” she says:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Wow, does that sound like the prophets to anyone else? I’ve always wondered if Mary had a bit of prophecy in her, a bit of fire and brimstone for us wayward sinners who reject God’s justice and mercy… and there’s some proof to back me up in that.
Basically, in scripture, there are different types of writing—songs, histories, law books, letters, etc. And there are what you’d call forms that they follow, like a business letter. There’s a form for the announcement of a miraculous birth—like to Mary, right? And to Abraham’s wife Sarai and to Hannah and several others, all of whom were too old or couldn’t have children. There’s another form for when someone is called to be a prophet—Gideon and Jeremiah and Isaiah among others.
And, here’s where it gets weird—Mary’s conversation with Gabriel fits the call story for a prophet better than it fits the announcement of miraculous birth. Crazy, right?
Or maybe not. Things here just aren’t what they seem. The angel is otherworldly and scary, Mary meek and mild speaks with authority of the proud and the rich—us, maybe?—being brought low and the poor and downtrodden given every gift. For goodness sake, Jesus is God in human form, God who gestated in the womb of a woman and born crying in a dirty stable—seriously? Everything is different than we expect, and Jesus himself is different than we expect. The only thing you could change to make it blindingly obvious that something is up is if Jesus had been a girl. Too much? Well, you get my point—things are not what they seem.
And as we hustle about this last week before Christmas, it’s tempting to assume things are exactly what they seem. That the way we do things here—at Good Shepherd or in America or on the planet Earth, for that matter—are the way things are done. Or that the advertisements and the culture are correct that we need to spend more than we already are on our loved ones’ gifts, that those gifts will make clear the love we feel for them. That Jesus is a cute, squirmy baby who’s come to save us all. That last one is true, but only as far as it goes. It doesn’t deal with that cute baby’s diapers or that salvation comes free but not cheap. And Jesus doesn’t come to affirm everything we already think, either.
Do you see what I’m saying here? This Jesus we’re waiting for, who we’re excited about, makes all things new—and that’s a comfort and a threat both. Like every baby is—a delightful little bundle of joy and a complicated bundle of possibility. Mary is pregnant with Jesus—a week away from giving birth. To be honest, she’s enormous and ready for this baby to be here already. But he’s not yet, not quite yet… And, in some way, we’re all pregnant with possibility. “…14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart…wrote: ‘What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 2000 years ago, if I do not give birth to God today? We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.’”* If we are not preparing for Jesus by—I don’t know—reading scripture or praying for our enemies or working on what’s holding us back from forgiving someone—then nothing changes for us. Well, maybe something changes—God works in mysterious ways, after all, and it’s not about our righteousness. It’s about God’s desire for us and God’s desire to be with us. It won’t look like what you think, but don’t you want to get ready for that? Don’t you want to be part of that new thing that’s coming next Sunday? Don’t you want to be part of the excitement and the challenge of living like God’s right here? Because Jesus, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel which means God is With Us is with us. Now. And next Sunday.
May our souls magnify the Lord.
May our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.
For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of us his servants.
May we be called blessed for the mighty things God does and for our saying “yes.”

* Quoted from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/“let-it-be”-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-for-the-4th-sunday-of-advent/ (accessed 1:15pm, 12.13.11)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

sermon--Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon I: [sign on pulpit reads “gospel of wealth”]
Brothers and sisters, let us turn to our text for today
from the gospel of Matthew,
the twenty-fifth chapter and the twenty-ninth verse.
Inspired by the Lord God, St. Matthew says,
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Amen?
Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to three servants,
two of whom make money hand over fist in the name of God,
and one of whom is full of fear and doubt
and who hides it and himself away.
Now who is it we’re supposed to identify with here, brothers and sisters?
Who is it that Jesus Christ himself is telling us to be?
Is he telling us to be afraid?
To hide away the abundant wealth God gives us?
No, do not hide yourself under a bushel
but let your light shine, brothers and sisters!
Is he telling us to use that wealth,
to use those gifts God gives to make more for ourselves,
showing ourselves to be a blessing to the Lord?
Yes, indeed.
Consider the story Matthew tells:
he says there’s a man who portions out his wealth,
his valuable possessions, to his servants to care for.
Now, why would he do that?
Why not keep these possessions locked up and safe,
away from the risk of theft or loss?
Why hand them over to his servants who, no doubt,
don’t have his same financial acumen?
Folks, he didn’t want these possessions to simply sit,
showing their beauty to no one,
not actively creating more wealth for the Master.
So, without giving any instruction,
he gives each servant a portion of his own wealth,
vast sums even, and leaves,
safe in his assumption that they’ll know what he wants,
that they ought to increase his wealth.
Well, you know what happens, brothers and sisters,
the two good and faithful servants do exactly
what the Master asks and rewarded handsomely for their work
—their wealth is doubled and they are the toast of the town.
But the third, oh, the third.
He feared the Lord, he hid from the Lord,
and he had even his last penny taken away in punishment.
Brothers and sisters, how else are we to read this story
except that God wants us to increase our wealth,
Go wants us to have abundance in our lives,
and if we only are faithful enough, we will receive it.
Call now to make your tithe so that you may begin your journey
to blessed prosperity!

Sermon II: [sign on pulpit reads “participation = blessedness”]
I am ace at getting the participation grade in class.
Really, my husband sometimes calls me, with deep love, Hermione.
I’m the guy with my hand up, just itching to be called on,
wanting to show off my knowledge and be recognized.
In small groups, I tend to take leadership.
I participate so much, sometimes other people
have a hard time participating…
Ok, maybe I push too hard to get my way,
maybe I ought to let others have a chance to participate as well,
after all, it’s not all about me.
It’s about all of us responding to God’s good word.
Because those three servants in the parable Jesus tells,
they’re not meant to be individual people
—Sally or Jim Bob or me or Presiding Bishop Hanson—
but representations of the church universal.
And these servants have been given gifts,
great gifts of creativity and teaching
and justice-seeking and administration
and what do we do with them as a church body?
How do we respond to being given those gifts?
How do we participate in God’s Kingdom?
Two of the servants take the gifts entrusted to them and double their value
—double, can you imagine?
Consider your own gifts—your wealth, yes, but also
your family and friends, your passions, our ministries as a congregation
—and consider what it would look like to double them in some way? Amazing, yes?
And, maybe a little overwhelming?
It would take a lot of work to get there, blood, sweat, and tears.
But when the Master in the story returns,
does he not commend those two servants
for their faithfulness and their success?
Yet the third servant receives only punishment for doing nothing at all.
Charles Wesley said in his commentary that
"mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation,
was the cause of his damnation!"
Harsh, yet that’s what the text says.
This may be treading close to works righteousness,
the theological idea that we can somehow earn our salvation,
that we can earn God’s love and favor.
Which we all know to be ridiculous.
But here’s Jesus saying it.
Maybe the Psalms and our surrounding culture have something right
in suggesting that we have some responsibility
to participate in the Kingdom God is making.
Maybe there is a grade for participation.
If that’s the case, you better watch out of my way…

Sermon III: [sign on music stand: “left-handed power”]
God is a jerk. Now before you fire me for blasphemy, let me explain.
If God is the landowner here, and God is, as it says
“a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow,
gathering where he did not scatter,”
and God throws a servant into outer darkness
because he didn’t make any money,
that God seems kind of like a jerk.
Or, at least, not a God I’d like to associate with.
But regardless of my personal likes and dislikes,
I wonder why we always associate the landowner or the king
in Jesus’ stories with God?
Why does that character in control
need to be the cypher for the divine?
Let’s try an alternative. Theologian Robert Farrar Capon
wrote a book called Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
where he explores all of Jesus’ parables
and attempts a complex but cohesive interpretation.
He suggests that God is often portrayed as having right-handed power,
that is, might, strength, righteousness, obvious power.
The kind of power the culture and we expect from a God.
Avenging, overwhelming, etc.
Yet, in scripture, God so often acts from what you might call left-handed power
—power born of weakness, the power of surprising choices.
God chooses the younger son over and over,
despite the culture and common sense
saying that the eldest would be the best choice.
God chooses to become human in the form of Jesus Christ
who does not bring right-handed power
in the form of defeating the occupying Romans.
God allows himself to be killed on the cross, for goodness sakes.
Not what we expect, not what we think it ought to be like.
God seems to consistently choose the left-hand path,
the path of surprise or of switching-up,
the path that we do not choose.
So, in this parable, perhaps we ought to switch it up
and consider if the servant who buries the money
might be the righteous one.
That is, what if God is not the landowner?
The landowner says the frightened servant should have
at least invested the money and received simple interest
—fair enough, right? Wrong—
Jews were not allowed to charge or receive interest.
It was considered a form of exploitation.
What if the requests that the servants make a healthy return
is not God’s command?
What if the servant who hides the money
is righteously refusing to participate in the dominant culture
of exploitation and aggrandizement?
What if he is choosing the narrow path,
the difficult path of true faith,
and our discomfort with that only shows our own
lack of commitment to the way of Jesus?
Because the consequence of not doing what people expect
is a form of outer darkness.

* * *

This is a tough parable. Which interpretation is correct?
What did Jesus really mean when he preached this parable?
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber asks in one of her books,
“What would Jesus do? Something I think is really cool… “
God surprises us, turns what we expect on it’s head,
but not just to keep us guessing, no, that’s a jerk move.
God surprises us because
we can’t seem to remember what he’s all about in the first place.
So we swing among extremes
—I can do it on my own and deserve God’s love
or God is a cosmic vending machine if I just believe hard enough
or even that’s not God at all, is it?
We can’t see God in the midst of the images we make of him.
And, to be fair, Jesus doesn’t always help with his riddle-me-this stories.
Parables aren’t 1-to-1 stories which tell us what to do in a given situation.
They’re little mysteries which reveal more
and yet continue to ask questions the more we delve.
The Holy Spirit isn’t boxable into what we want her to be saying to us.
What if this parable is all those things I preached?
What if we’re not supposed to buy into a culture
of exploitation and gain
but we are supposed to make something of ourselves?
What if it’s really not about what we do, about our good works,
and yet it’s about our doing something,
participating in God’s great dream?
There is no one, clear, final interpretation of the parables,
and there never will be.
They’re for wrestling with and experimenting with
and coming back to again and again to be renewed in our awe of God.
The Right Reverend Desmond Tutu (Anglican Bishop, you know)
once said:
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice,
you choose the side of the oppressor."
If you are neutral in situations of scripture,
you choose the side of apathy, not the side of God.
Which is not to say that we must be entirely certain, for that is ridiculous.
But that we must engage.
The Christian faith is not what you think it is,
it is so much more.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

sunday's sermon--Exodus 3.1-15 (draft)

Today we get the calling of Moses to be God’s messenger. God calls to Moses through a burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed. An amazing, impossible, can’t-miss-it kind of sign that something’s happening right? The burning bush is not about the burning bush. It’s about God calling. And it’s about Moses answering. Or, maybe it’s about Moses expecting a call. But it’s not about the bush.

See, I hear from folks a lot the question, “how come we don’t see burning bushes anymore?” or “where are all the big miracles that we read about in the Bible now?” or “how come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” Wrong questions. Moses saw the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed because he was looking for it. Or because he was willing to see it. Exodus says Moses looked at the bush, then decided to turn aside and get a closer look. He chose to see God’s presence there rather than just moving on. We don’t practice seeing God very well and so when God shows up, we often don’t notice, or we attribute it to something else—a natural phenomenon like the gradation of blue in a cloudless sky or rain that keeps us from an appointment (what’s more natural than God?), or thoughts in our brains (since we’re so busy-busy, why wouldn’t God nudge us that way?). And most of us don’t think that we could be called by God because we can’t imagine God wanting to call us. Why me?

But God does call us. All of us, individually and as a group. Paul talks about how all of us are part of the body of Christ, all parts necessary for healthy functioning, no part unnecessary—all of us called to the healthy functioning of the church and the world. God is constantly speaking to us, constantly trying to get us to look at him like a young woman crushing on a boy. “Just look at me…” And the big things we read about in scripture, those are signs that God’s trying to get our attention. They’re not the messages.

Think about it this way:
First, there’s The Story, God’s story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, a portion of which is told us in scripture. The Story which we revere and which describes for us what the world often looks like, which suggests to us how we might make that world function better, more compassionately. The Story which includes big crazy stories like the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed and Elijah speaking to God directly and hearing God the whirlwind, God the thunderstorm, and God the silence. The Story which we love and struggle with but which we don’t often practice connecting with our own stories.
Part the second, is our stories: your life is a story, has a plot you don’t yet know the end of, characters who come and stay for a time, pain and triumph, boring bits and exciting bits. Our stories shed light on where we are now. I have a lot of compassion for folks on the margins—prisoners, the working poor, the gay community—because I was on the margins for much of my life. I was a weird kid—who knew?—and was teased mercilessly in elementary and junior high. I felt…feel like an outcast and so identify with others in a similar category. I am where I am now because of that experience. Our stories show us how we got to where we are and sometimes a bit of where we’re going.

And last, there’s a dynamic, creative space where these two stories connect, where The Story/God’s Story connects with our own stories. The stories of scripture aren’t just a rule book and they aren’t just bizarre stories about miracles. They’re our own stories, our own lives writ large. C. S. Lewis once said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

The Story of Moses and the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed is about God calling to this guy Moses, this shepherd, this guy who stutters and who, it turns out, can’t keep control of the people he’s been entrusted to care for. He’s just this guy, you know? And God calls to him, and Moses chooses to turn aside and look and listen. And, before you think that’s the end, in this and every call story in the Bible, the person being called objects. Sometimes strenuously. Moses doesn’t think he can do it. Sound familiar? And God says, “yes, you can and I’ll help. Pay attention.”

So, how to tell when God calls? Often, when God calls, it’s not just one time, not just in a single heated moment. A lot of the time, it takes us some time to see and turn aside to look. I am personally rather thick and so I need a lot of prodding. So, at the risk of being self-involved, I thought I’d share a little of my own spiritual autobiography. How did I get here? What signs did I see along the way that suggested God wanted me to do something?

When I was in first grade, around the time my father went to seminary, I was vaguely aware of religion and God, but I didn’t really think about it much. I do remember I was terribly afraid of the dark for years, a fear which I have never truly shaken. I would panic when entering a dark room and fumble wildly for the light switch. I would run up a flight of stairs from a dark hallway to a light one, afraid that a monster was chasing me. It was at Easter each year that I began slowly to lose that fear. At the university, the seminarians and faculty go all out for the Easter vigil, beginning very early on Sunday morning in complete darkness. They light a blazing fire to symbolize the light of Christ which pierces the darkness, but which to me only put up a thin, weak wall between us and the surrounding darkness. Slowly we processed into the chapel and began the vigil. Most of us kids would fall asleep in the chairs, awoken later by the rising sun streaming through the surrounding tall, thin windows when we came to the Resurrection. It was magical. That the service could be timed so well, that the sun was so glorious streaming through the windows, that the music was so jubilant was a real “Wow” moment for me. I was overcome with joy and renewal and felt that something very good had pushed away the literal and figurative dark.

In high school, I sometimes went with my priest father to the local women’s prison. For a while, on Wednesday nights, he would go and celebrate Eucharist for a small group of women. It didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the people we visited until I walked through the first set of metal doors. Their clanging shut sounded so final and I woke up a little. The second set told me I wasn’t getting out of here easily, and neither were these women. Even then, I was not afraid but curious. At the point in the Eucharist after the long, beautiful, boring prayer is over, the priest invites the assembly forward saying something like “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” My father always added, “holy things for holy people.” That was when I realized what was happening. These women whose pasts I didn’t know and could only guess were indeed holy people. This bread and wine was theirs as God’s beloved. Prisons have struck me as holy ground ever since, rather like the ground Moses removed his shoes to walk on.

Around this time, I also read a book called The Mirror of Her Dreams which, honestly, may not be very good, but it affected me profoundly. One supporting character, one of the daughters of the king who is rather dreamy and idealistic and thought to be weak-willed, says to the main character, “problems should be solved by those who see them.” Later, she finds her courage and risks her life for a wounded stranger. Problems should be solved by those who see them. Yes, they should. If not you, who? If not now, when? Yes, I thought, yes, I felt in my bones. And the fire in my heart began to burn in earnest.

Many years later, after rejecting the feeling that I was called to ordained ministry several times, I ended up in seminary. To make ends meet, my husband and I worked at Barnes and Noble and, at this time, the number one bestseller on every list there was was The Da Vinci Code. To be honest, I didn’t care for it, but many did and I found myself in daily conversations with coworkers and customers about issues the book brought up. And those conversations expanded into more personal ones about folks’ faith and desires. I became the informal chaplain to the store. It was a weird spiritual place, but one which helped explain the burning in my heart to care for those hurt by the church, those seeking, those wandering lost in the wilderness.

All of these experiences were my burning-bush-that-burned-but-was-not-consumed. It wasn’t a sudden moment. And, while I’m still figuring out what it means to be a priest, I have turned off the main path to look at what God is calling me to.

Sometimes the overlap between God’s story and our story is sudden and easily seen like Moses’ story or like Paul on the Damascus Road. More often, it takes time, is a cycle, seems rather ordinary. And that is precisely where God is working all the time. God doesn’t need the big moments to tell us something, to call us into deeper relationship or risky giving or radical forgiveness. God calls to us in every moment of every day.

Let me give you one more example. Steve Jobs has retired recently, but in 2005, he spoke at Stanford’s commencement. He said,
“[My] college at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

This week, I’m giving you homework. And I’ll check back next week. I want you to try to connect the dots.
Take a little time each day this week to consider your life story. What are your strongest memories? What were your favorite books or most influential people? How are they related to who you are now? Do you see any similarities among those stories? Threads which continue through your life but that you hadn’t noticed before?
Then spend some time in prayer—not the intercessory prayer we often do for others, but in silence, asking God to help you see what God’s trying to show you.
Consider what God might be saying to you in the most ordinary moments of your life, in the birthday parties and the deaths, in the Habitat houses you’ve built or the papers you’ve written, the things you’ve gotten excited about and the things you wish you didn’t remember. Ask God to help you see more clearly the thread of the sacred running through your life. Ask God where that thread might be leading.
Write this stuff down if that’s helpful, or talk about it with your family or a trusted friend.
Be honest. Be open to a burning bush-that-is-burning-but-not-consumed, because it’s been burning all your life, off to the side, in the corner of your eye. Turn aside from the path you think you have to be on and look at what God is doing. Choose to see your story connected to God’s story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

sermon--Matthew 16.13-20

[All of the below are notes to riff on, not complete thoughts. It's possible this will not make any sense to anyone but me. Probably you ought to read the passage cited in the title...]

I wanna be like Peter—he gets it so wrong, but gets it so right here

“who do you say that I am?”
—silence in bible study when asked, our own silence
what if it’s about more than profession of faith?
Yes, name God to others (identify God working—my job on campus)
But also see God for God
God wants to be seen, desires us, makes self-revelation
Like the Navi’i in Avatar… “I see you”
Like our crushes—“God, just look at me!”
Weird to speak of desire/romance with God?
Not far off—bridal mysticism (look it up, off topic)

Who do we say God is,
not just to be right or win political office, but to show others
a completely changed and desire-charged life
Merton—“I believe my desire to please you pleases you.”
College students
Who do you say I am?
Many think they know, many want to find out
What bearing does the church have?
Why should we pay attention?
Student Reggie—didn’t know she needed God, wanted something
Wanted to know and be known, to be changed
I offered, I showed a complex, radically inclusive, risky face
Peter and the others--gave up everything, tried to change the world
Who we say God is, and who we show God to be

What we do, how we show God’s face to others,
is all because we’ve turned when God called and said, “I see you”
to truly see God face to face and to be seen
that experience changes everything

May we see and be seen. May we love with a risky, active love and be loved in return. May we desire to please God, whether or not we are right. May we see the face of God on all we meet and may we be the face of God to all we meet.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Christianity 101—inaugural year

This Fall, we're adding a catecheumenate to the Edge House's repetoire. Or, for the uninitiated or recovering-Catholic among you, Christianity 101. The idea is that we have students who would like to be baptized or who'd like to reaffirm their faith and we ought to offer information and conversation to help those decisions. After meeting for a couple hours once a month, at the Easter Vigil 2012--at, like 4:30 in the morning--we'll give them the opportunity to affirm or reaffirm. Should be amazing!

What remains is for me to figure out what I'm going to teach them... Here's a very vague sketch. Your thoughts?

October: how did you get here?--share stories, watch Cameron Duncan's "DFK6498", talk about where we're bound and where we need freedom, begin talking about scripture and how that big story got here (maybe a short study on something relating to the exile)
homework: memorize books of the bible (very handy, that...)

November: continue conversations about scripture, in particular overview of The Story/Plot, intensive studies of several pivotal passages, clip from Firefly: disc 2, "Jaynestown", chapter 3, 9:44, from Book: "What are we up to?" through Book: "You hang onto those now."
homework: assign stories for projects--must read from several translations, short essay maybe on what's happening literally and spiritually (what's God doing? how do we react?), where you see yourself, and some creative response

December: church history--how'd we get here?, Paul, councils, denominations, etc.

January: theology—sola scriptura vs. Three-Legged Stool, major bits of theology (Christology, Trinity, soteriology, what else?), I know I have some media for “what’s God like?”—film clip? Excerpt from book?..., maybe use some of the 500 Theses from seminary, Images of Jesus handout
homework: begin working on spiritual autobiography

February: ethics—read and discuss some ethical case studies from my seminary ethics class, play the “Who Gets the Liver?” game, heroes of the faith (Good Samaritan, Constance and her Companions, the Widow and Elijah, who else?)
homework: continue working on spiritual autobiography

March: practice—make communion bread together while talking?, orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy, liturgy and worship, prayer, mission, present autobiographies
homework: share your autobiography with someone who’s not in this group

April: participate in Holy Week and Easter Vigil

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

sunday's sermon--Psalm 85.8

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
* * *
[Teach “Let Me Hear” by Philip Newell]
Let me hear, let me listen, help me listen,
because I think God has something to say.
But I keep getting distracted. Do you have this problem?
There’s always something: the laundry, or work,
or it’s not practical to spend time in prayer or to advocate for…
ooh, look! a shiny thing…
It’s been a heck of a week for me at the Edge campus ministry house:
I’ve had to say “no” to a couple wanting to have their marriage blessed
even though I didn’t want to,
I’ve had to say “no” to a student
who wanted to continue to be a part of the ministry,
I’ve gotten to say “yes” to some exciting outreach plans
for the school year and spring break,
…aaand then had to say “no” again to our friendly neighborhood bum.
Bennie sleeps on the porch. And leaves trash on the porch.
And pees on the porch. And he’s a violent drunk.
And he’s the county’s arrest record-holder.
So I don’t kick him off on a whim—
it’s not a good situation for us and it’s not good for him either. The thing is, he doesn’t listen. Or he can’t listen.
Every time I see him, I tell him,
“Bennie, you can’t sleep here” at least five times.
And he says he’s not.
And then we find evidence he’s been there, or Bennie himself,
still sleeping off his cheap liquor.
His mental illness keeps him from understanding
what people say to him.
And I wonder if we, too, have something
that keeps us from understanding what people say to us,
what God says to us.
Do we have some sort of—let’s call it a mental illness—
that distracts from the abundant life God offers?
Yeah, we do. It’s called sin.
Not a pleasant word in our world,
not a word we want to apply to our not spending much time
in prayer
or our justifications for the comfort we have.
But it’s our word, it’s the church’s word
for all that distracts us from the amazing, delightful,
peace-filled life God invites us to.
Sin is thinking you have the right answer on your own,
it’s looking down on your parents or professors,
it’s hurting other people whether we know it or not,
it’s not practicing the generous faith we claim.
Sin is not listening to God.
My spiritual director gave me an article years ago which has stuck with me.
In it, the writer says that he always thought prayer
needed to be very calm, very spiritual,
approached from a calm, spiritual day.
You know, some yoga, a cup of tea, soothing classical music,
no…you know…actual life happening around him as it does.
He says his prayers never looked like that,
that he would stew over the events of his day
for the majority of the time,
then ask a kind of perfunctory “I’m here, where are you God?”
and then be done with it.
But he came to realize that his prayer was
more expansive than that—
that the stewing was indeed part of the prayer,
that God wants us to tell him everything,
even though he already knows it.
Turning over the events of the days in the presence of God is prayer.
And most of us never get past this part—
we talk at God and then call it a day.
But that’s not all of it.
After we can’t stew any more, we reflect:
“I think this is what’s happening here,
maybe this is how I ought to reply,
ah, that one story from scripture is kind of similar…”
If we’re lucky, we make it to this reflection part of prayer
and we think we’re deeply spiritual.
And it is an advance of sorts.
The vast majority of us rarely, if ever,
let ourselves get to the third stage: listening.
Emptying ourselves of all the stewing
and all the pride that we can figure it out
and just listening to what God might have to speak.
And all of this is what we mean by turning to God in our hearts.
But what does God sound like? What are we listening for?
Some really do hear words,
others feel a strong, repeated push towards something
over months or years,
others feel God in a sudden inspiration that seems outside
of what they could have come up with.
Scripture suggests that the voice of God is peace.
When we listen, says the Psalm for today, God speaks peace
to the faithful who turn to God in their hearts.
And not peace in the cute, marketed peace-sign kind of way
but what our Jewish brothers and sisters call shalom.
It’s a complex thing, shalom.
It means first wholeness and interdependence.
And it means truth, a deep, abiding truth
that speaks to our guts as much as it does our brains.
And it means love, but a challenging love of sacrifice,
loving something that we’re not entirely gung-ho about.
Because, again, we don’t want to hear it.
The word of God is about righteousness and faithfulness
and connection being the norm.
This is what Shalom is.
It’s like the moment right after you put your kids to bed.
It’s the place after all the “yes’s” and “no’s”
that we have to say during the day,
it’s the place where it all makes sense,
fits together, and is beautiful.
When God speaks peace and we hear it,
it’s not just hearing the vibrations in the air,
“yeah, ok, that’s nice” but a full-body kind of hearing.
Often, we can only hear the voice of God
because we’ve been practicing hearing it.
What we do regularly
—church, outreach, getting to know the neighbors, shopping—
what we do regularly shapes us,
it forms us into beings who can or cannot hear God speaking.
What we do regularly allows us to drop the distractions.
Or it allows us to keep those distractions, those sins, in place.
This is the practice of the faith—listening means practicing.
And God speaks peace all the time.
Shalom, wholeness, it’s few and far between in this broken world
—but it’s here nonetheless.
God is speaking peace to us constantly
—in our marriages and family life,
at work where things can get contentious,
in the middle of exam week or co-op decision time on campus,
in the middle of a movie,
in our conversations about theology or sexuality or politics—
God is speaking peace, is offering us a different way,
the true way that we’re struggling so hard to achieve on our own.
God is speaking peace, wholeness, vulnerability, faithfulness, peace
to every one of us in every moment.
To hear God, maybe we need to make time to listen
and not just assume that we’ll get it one day.
Let’s turn to God in our hearts
and reach out for the peace God’s offering.
Let’s practice listening for peace.
[Sing again.]

Monday, August 01, 2011

sunday's sermon--Matthew 14:13-21

Most images below come from Things Organized Neatly. You should check it out. Also, Things Organized Neatly, please don't sue me for posting these images. They made my sermon more effective.

(asterixes indicate a slide change)
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
“Everyone who thirsts…” Are you thirsty?*

Are you hungry?
What for?*(black screen)
I hunger for cool new shoes. And the approval of others.
I thirst for free time and then spend it doing housework
—it does not satisfy.
What do you hunger and thirst for?
I hunger for radically inclusive church community
where everyone is not just allowed in but desired
I thirst for a church where the poor, the outcast, the broken,
yes, even the rich are welcomed with open arms.
I hunger for more time with my delightful daughter.
I thirst for deep prayer in a world which doesn’t have the time.
These would satisfy. These would be the bread Isaiah and Jesus speak of.
It seems like we here on the ground, we ordinary people
are always striving for something else, something more.
Yet the something more we receive rarely satisfies.
You know what I’m talking about: houses, cars, clothing, success at work,
people liking us for the image we present
—that stuff doesn’t satisfy, not for long.
I don’t know about you, but I kind of expect God to be, you know, obvious.
Sign-like. A big burning bush in the middle UC’s campus
or a pillar of smoke in the middle of the House of Representatives
leading us to the Promised Land.
But, no, we have ordinary old sidewalks and ballpark hot dogs.
We hunger and thirst for something huge and flashy
and we get something small and ordinary.
We’ve been talking about finding God in the ordinary the last few weeks
—have you caught on to that?—
because we rarely get the huge, flashy sign of God’s presence.
But, more than that, we’re talking about finding God in the ordinary
because that is precisely where God shows up.
Check it out. One of my favorite blogs is called Things Organized Neatly
—she posts images of, well, things. Organized neatly.
Here’s a couple examples: clay pots stacked neatly*,

matches in varying degrees of being burnt*,

books organized by color*,

all the pieces of a pocket watch*

—you get the point.
Each is made up of very ordinary things, yet seen in a different way,
are things of extraordinary beauty.*(black screen)
Or try this one:
my husband has been spending his summer away from teaching
revising his young adult novel so he can pitch it to an agent.
Parts of the revision go smoothly,
he really gets into it and hours pass without his realizing.
Other parts are much more difficult, and he struggles with them.
And every so often, having had all of those parts of the plot
swimming around in his head for months,
an elegant solution rises to the surface
which makes everything fit together.
I’m not speaking of a blinding flash of insight here, folks,
but the everyday, ordinary workings of our brains
which, to me, suggest the action of the Holy Spirit.
She moves in mysterious ways, in subtle ways,
in ways we’d call ordinary and thus not divine.
But the ordinary points to the divine.
Look: The stuff Jesus fed the 5000 with is ordinary stuff.
Bread and fish—you could buy it at any store, or make it yourself.
It’s not special.
And even the bread and wine of our weekly meal here is ordinary.
Ordinary things—fish and bread, bread and juice…us.
We’re ordinary things—we’re no saints,
we’re made of dirt if you remember the Genesis stories!
Ordinary dirt sculpted into something beautiful.
But that’s what the saints were
—ordinary people doing extraordinary things—or, rather,
ordinary people doing the ordinary things of the Kingdom of God.
Check this out.
Today (Saturday) we celebrate the feast day of William Wilberforce,
an abolitionist and politician from the 1800s.
He made long speeches and worked tirelessly for 18 years
to abolish the slave trade in England because of his faith
in the freedom we have in Jesus Christ.
You might think
“it’s all well and good for him, he was famous and powerful.”
But he was just a guy
who didn’t think a person should own another person.
All the heroes of the faith are ordinary folks
trying to live like God is really here like he says he is,
ordinary folks thirsting and hungering
for justice and truth and mercy.
When Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd of well more than 5000 people,
they didn’t know what to do—they only had a little bread and fish,
nothing compared to the crowds gathered.
And Jesus said, “bring your nothing to me.”
This morning, I bring to God my nothing
and hope that he can make something out of it.
I bring our beloved country’s literal hunger and thirst.
From what I read, there is plenty to go around,
so why, in a country which prides itself
on its Christian history and Christian present,
do so many suffer from malnutrition?
Every time I go to the Freestore/Foodbank to volunteer,
they show us around the warehouse,
and when we get to the PowerPak station, I tear up.
Every time.
PowerPaks have food for the 36-hours of a week-end,
food that doesn’t have to be refrigerated
and doesn’t need special tools like can openers to open.
Because it’s for kids whose parents can’t or won’t feed them over the weekend.
Kids who won’t eat otherwise.
This is not right.
This is not what a Christian nation looks like.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton says
we can’t hope to bring about the Kingdom
with non-Kingdom practices—
we can’t bring about peace with weapons,
we can’t bring about abundance for all
with wealth concentrated in the few.
This is a hard thing, brothers and sisters,
because these things have become ordinary to us.
Our comfort and wealth have become entitlements
Which only means things we’ve got used to.
Our hunger and thirst have become ordinary
to the point that we don’t notice them,
we don’t see the Kingdom of God showing up in our lives
because it doesn’t seem important enough.
We can’t see past the ordinariness of our situation
—but that is exactly where God meets us
and makes of our nothing an abundant feast.
Jesus made the little bit of bread and fish
into food for thousands but that wasn’t the only point
—that was the big sign that something was happening,
but then the something happened.
The disciples fed the people.
They took the bread and fish
and handed it out to the people waiting.
They fed the hungry.
And they fed ALL the hungry.
This is the kingdom of God, brothers and sisters…
In the ordinary stuff of our lives


baby clothes*,

ingredients for cookies*,




candy bars*

—God makes something out of nothing.
And do you see how many of these images were of food?
It’s one of the most ordinary parts of our lives
and yet gives us a foretaste of the kingdom of God.*(black screen)
Do you see?
Do you see how God can slip in through the cracks
where we don’t expect him?
Do you see that in ordinary things like a bit of bread and fish,
God calls us to the life of the Kingdom
where all have a place at the table,
where all receive what they need and offer what they have,
where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free, gay nor straight,
rich nor poor, Democrat nor Republican
and where we receive abundant life,
and where we give it away as well.
What if we lived like that Kingdom were here right now?*

What do you hunger for?
What do you thirst for?
Does it satisfy?
Come to the table, for the meal is prepared.
*(black screen)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

eucharistic prayer for NOSH--Creation

Church nerds among you might recognize the second half of the prayer as the ancient didache eucharistic prayer. We added an introduction to connect with our first liturgical season, God's creation of the universe.

Out of the dirt of the garden, God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food and The Tree-of-Life was in the middle of the garden. And God made us out of the dirt and gave us the garden to delight in and to take care of. And God so loved it all that God joined us in creation, was made out of the same dirt. And asked that through simple things of the earth—bread, wine, a shared meal—we lift our hearts and our hands to God as we remember the life Jesus led, the people he touched, the meals he ate, and the sacrifice he made. A reminder about communion: all may, some should, none must. Much of this ritual is about the gathered community, so when you pass the bread and wine, please continue to say the words to the next person whether you take the bread and wine or not.

[concerning the wine] We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory for ever.
[concerning the bread] We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory for ever. Even as the grains of wheat were scattered over the hills, and were gathered together to become one bread, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

tomorrow's sermon--Acts 20:32-35

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of eternity. Amen.
* * *
Welcome to week two of stewardship at Good Shepherd.
There are a ton of illustrations for sermons available online
for stewardship season
—object lessons that show you simply and clearly
why tithing is important and doable,
illustrations which would bring every one of you to your knees
with the blinding truth of God’s love,
illustrations which would have you opening your wallets and
handing over everything for the work of the Kingdom! A-men?
Or, at least, that’s what they’d have you think.
There are jokes about ministers and horses and desert islands,
there are prop-related illustrations
that involve things like a mason jar with a few Ping-Pong balls
and some sand which, when I saw it done,
was cheesy but effective.
There are thousands of these things available,
because we in the church have realized
how difficult it is to talk about money in an engaging way.
We’re all a bit jealous of our time and our money.
I know I have a hard time thinking Leighton and I will be able
to cover our bills and things
if we give more money to the church.
And, if you don’t have the experience of Good Shepherd
as a joy-filled place that feeds your soul
for ministry in the world,
no sermon illustration ever will make you open your wallet.
Before Leighton and I had our delightful daughter Abby,
before we were even considering having kids, we had a pretty good life.
We worked and we made art and we gardened
and we went out with friends.
We watched movies and TV, we talked politics,
and there never seemed to be enough time
for everything we wanted to do.
As we considered having a child,
we became fearful of how much time we would lose.
Children, wonderful creatures that they are,
take a lot of time to care for and play with.
Where would that time come from?
How would we continue doing all the things we had come to love
and still take care of this child?
Those of you who are parents know well how much your focus shifts
when you hold that baby in your arms
—often, we can’t even remember what we did
to fill the hours we now spend with Abby.
Some of the stuff you did before stays around,
but much of it gets put in your spiritual attic
and, while you miss it, you don’t miss it much,
because you have this amazing, overwhelmingly beautiful,
intriguing, endlessly changing
new relationship in your life.
The sacrifice of something you love
brings to town an even deeper love.
Do you get it?
This is so much bigger than the annual stewardship campaign.
This is the heart of the Gospel that Peter speaks of in today’s Acts reading,
that Jesus spent his life getting folks to see
—that this faith we profess is about a joyful relationship
which is so much better than we can imagine
when standing outside of it.
Clinging to our stuff or our time leads only
to a narrower, more pinched life,
but holding it all loosely,
offering our stuff, our time, our selves to one another in the church
expands our lives, allows us room to breathe in,
allows space for the Spirit to transform us.
Last week we talked about how we see the world
through a lens of scarcity
while God sees the world through a lens of abundance.
We talked about how this faith we profess is about celebration,
about how church should be and is a party.
Let me give you some examples:
Way back in the day,
when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem,
the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Law of God
given to Moses
and which was so wonderfully holy that it might indeed
have melted Nazi faces (Raiders of the Lost Ark, right?),
the Ark of the Covenant which was to be placed
in the brand-new Temple as a footstool for God,
when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem,
all the Jews partied and David, greatest King of Israel,
stripped down to just his shorts, and danced.
He danced so passionately, with such devotion and love,
that his wife was embarrassed. He was that happy.
And even farther back in the day,
when the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea
after fleeing slavery in Egypt,
when the Israelites had made it safely
between two enormous, terrifying walls of water,
when the Israelites truly saw the mighty, freeing power
of their God,
one of their leaders, Moses’ sister Miriam,
sang her relief and joy to have survived the crossing,
she and the women took tambourines and lyres
and danced around the camp in exultation.
Brother Paul wrote his gratitude and pleasure in God
even while still in prison.
In Hebrews 12, he all but shouts,
“Do you see what we've got? An unshakable kingdom!
And do you see how thankful we must be?
Not only thankful, but brimming with worship,
deeply reverent before God.”
And Jesus exclaimed over God’s generosity,
shouting his joy that the meek and persecuted
and peacemakers would receive abundant life!
All because they saw the depth and power and good news
of God our Maker.
And so we at Good Shepherd are asking something small of you
we are asking for a 1% increase in your current pledge out of joy
My husband Leighton and I have increased our pledge
We’re now giving a huge 6%!
That’s not very big, is it?
On the other hand, it’s only been recently
that we’ve made a regular pledge at all
a few years ago
I did a little math and was embarrassed to discover
Our pledge was less than 1% of our income
And I thought we were so close to a tithe, 10%
So I figured out 2% and sent in the card
this year, 5%, next year, 6%, and after, maybe as high as 7%
I mean this in all seriousness
Increasing a pledge to the church can seem huge,
Even by a single, small percentage point
like that time before you have a kid
and you can’t imagine how you’ll manage
But ask yourself
Why does Good Shepherd matter?
Why does this community, here and now, matter to you and to the world?
What life of celebration have you discovered here?
What makes you want to dance with joy?
Have you made friends and connections here
you couldn’t somewhere else?
Have you reached out to someone who needed it?
Have you had someone from the Stephen Ministry
or the food-making ministry show up at your door?
Or received a card in the mail?
Have you talked with someone very different than yourself?
Has this community made an impact on your life?
Why does Good Shepherd matter to you?
Last week, we heard the prophet Ecclesiastes say that
we “will scarcely brood over the days of [our] lives
because God keeps [us] occupied with the joy of [our] hearts.”
And this week, Luke writes in the book of Acts that
the Gospel is “a message that is able to build you up.”
The heart of our community is celebration.
The center of our practice is thanksgiving.
The focus of our lives is love.
later, we’re going to sing a song called “When Love Comes to Town”
—it’s about deep joy in the midst of a broken life,
it’s about God being present in the craziest places
and about love winning out every time.
When love comes to town—when God comes to town—
he won’t be looking for your excuses,
he won’t be wondering how often you’ve been praised
for helping out your fellows
or how well you’ve avoided them,
he won’t be wondering if your theology’s kosher
—mm-umm, no, sir, when love comes to town,
when God comes to town,
he’ll be looking for how we’ve used the gifts we’ve been given,
he’ll be looking for how generously we’ve treated the abused
and the abusers,
he’ll be looking for how we’ve lived out this image of God
we were created in
—mm-hum, yes, sir
love comes to town every day,
God comes to town in every moment
—so you better dance like David and sing like Miriam,
you better write like Paul and shout like Jesus.
And give yourself away like it’s going out of style!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

last Sunday's sermon--Colossians 3:1-10

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of eternity. Amen.
* * *
My husband likes to say he succumbs to the sin of uxoriousness.
That’s the sin of loving your wife more than God.
To which I reply, “thanks?”
Uxoriousness—use it in a sentence today…
This is of course a form of idolatry,
a way to put something else in the place of God,
to make something or someone, in effect, your God.
Lots of things can be idols—golden calves, trophies, a career, money,
…and insert a deeply-felt groan here
because you’ve just realized it’s that time of year again…
It’s time for speeches about how we need your money,
heart-felt speeches saying essentially,
“give it up you tightwads, this stuff ain’t free,
oh and here’s some scripture to make you feel guilty”
that’s right, it’s stewardship season!
So, while we’re being honest about how we feel
about stewardship sermons
let’s be honest about why we don’t give more
—it’s because we come from an attitude of scarcity.
We think we ought to trust God for everything, right?
God’s the Creator and everything,
but what kind of return does God give on a $1000 investment?
What’s the deductible on God’s insurance plan?
No, God’s all right and all, but we need to trust something else,
something tangible or measurable. Something real…
We trust other things, put other things in the place of God
because we don’t think God will be enough
we don’t think there will be enough…whatever…to go around.
Now, I’m not saying we should all stop planning for the future,
but those plans are not God.
That future is usually anything but
what we expect it to be.
It is uncertain and it fills us with fear.
So we plan and worry and save and hoard
and become greedy for what we already have
—God’s promise that it will all be okay
in the end, right? And if it’s not okay…
[it’s not the end]
Here’s an example—
there are two documents in your house,
or on whatever tech device you use,
that will tell me exactly what you care about and what you fear.
They are your credit card statement and your calendar.
One will tell me what you spend your money on
—and what you don’t spend your money on—
and the other what you spend your time on.
These two paint a picture of who you are in the real world,
where your treasure and your heart are.
You might say they’re moral documents
You might say that they show us the idols we worship.
But what does that mean, “the idols we worship”?
What does it mean to worship anything?
Worship is intense devotion of time and energy.
Worship is giving worth—ultimate worth—to something.
Worship shows what comes before anything else in our lives.
Worship involves joy, maybe a tinge of fear, and a sense of awe.
It’s not unlike the devotion we show to sports teams in this town.
Now, I’m not going to lie, my team of choice is amazing
—they go out there and hustle,
they work hard, and they bring home the victory,
so there’s a reason the Cincinnati Rollergirls
are my favorite and that I’ve got tickets
to the next three bouts
—but I don’t worship them.
I used to have very disconcerting conversations
with parents of teenagers
about how their kids couldn’t come to confirmation class
—confirmation class!
Their conscious, adult choice to follow Jesus
Where they’re confirming they’ll try to love God
with all their hearts and souls
and minds and strengths
a class which lasted only 8 weeks—
they couldn’t come because the Bengals were playing
If that isn’t an obvious choice between God and an idol,
I don’t know what is.
No one wants to be called out on idolatry—
it’s uncomfortable, we fight such negative words,
and, really, it’s not us who are the problem
In the Colossians reading today, Paul equates idolatry with being greedy,
and no one wants to be called greedy either…
so we define it away from ourselves.
Greed is something people much richer than we are
have to struggle with.
Greed is extreme, greed is ugly, greed is unnecessary.
We could never be like that.
And this is precisely why folks don’t care for stewardship season—
readings like Colossians
which basically call us out on our inherent self-interest
when the church is also trying to butter us up
to give more money.
Essentially, “You’re a big sinner and you should be ashamed
—but pay up and it’ll be okay.”
Don’t get me wrong, we do some amazing things with the money
—but don’t give because we need it,
give because you need to give your stuff and yourself away,
give because giving removes the temptation
to trust in something not God
give away because you need to know just how filled
your life really is.
Here’s the deal:
whether it’s a little or a lot, acquiring and holding on to wealth
is the lens we see the world through.
Giving away wealth in any amount
is the lens God sees the world through.
We come at things from an attitude of scarcity,
God comes from a posture of abundance.
Let me tell you a story:
several years ago, the Episcopal Diocesan Convention
—Synod Assembly to y’all—was in Columbus.
We’d spent a good portion of the convention talking about money
and what we should do with what we had
—some thought we had too much,
some thought not enough—
typical conversations at convention.
Our closing Eucharist took place in the chapel at my seminary
and the place was packed.
When it came time for the ushers to bring
the offerings of bread, wine, and money forward to the altar,
it was like a comedy of errors.
Two ushers had the three plates of bread
which looked like cartoonish stacks of pancakes
—easily a foot tall each.
There were two enormous cruets of wine.
And the money was the most ridiculous.
I don’t know if someone forgot to get the larger baskets
or if people were particularly generous,
but as the ushers came forwards, the baskets were so full,
dollar bills fell out onto the floor.
They’d stop to pick them up and more would fall out.
They got to the altar and somehow crammed everything
onto the surface
and I could see our bishop just grinning
and saying “marvelous, marvelous.”
And it was.
There was such abundance there that day,
we all could see God’s kingdom right there in front of us—
there’s enough—no, more than enough—to go around.
How wonderful, how marvelous,
how ridiculously generous of God to give us such gifts.
We are far richer than we allow ourselves to believe,
in money, yes, and in talent and in time and in love
—wouldn’t we want to share that?
Wouldn’t we want to offer it to everyone we meet?
Wouldn’t it be a relief to let go of the fear and the scarcity
and the worry and the idolatry and the greed?
Wouldn’t we want to allow the resurrection
—Jesus’ ridiculously generous offer of life—to mean something? Wouldn’t we want to participate in the building of the Kingdom
of justice and mercy and abundance here and now?
Brothers and sisters, this life we’re offered in Jesus
is a celebration of abundance
This worship service every single week is a celebration of abundance
—so let’s party!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

reflections on an anniversary

Tomorrow is the 10 year anniversary of the signing of the Called to Common Mission statement. For those of you not aware, CCM is the full-communion statement between the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church (ELCA). And I find myself in a place I had hoped for but didn't expect ten years down the road.

When the agreement was first being talked about, I was suffused with hope. How beautiful that two Christian denominations would let go of our differences enough to recognize the Holy Spirit in our midst. How welcoming that could be to folks on the outside to see Christians doing what we say we should do--love one another. How intriguing it would be to pastor a multi-denominational (not non-denominational) church.

One of my first thoughts was, "Ooh, I want to be that pastor. I want to help us come together where we've historically pulled apart." And my second was, "How will this really work?"

I was delighted that a given congregation could ask for resumes and choose among a wider field of applicants so as to find the right person for the job, regardless of denomination. That's not how it works, as you might have expected, but I did not. No, a Lutheran church will look at Lutheran candidates and will only look at an Episcopalian when the options are gone. And vice versa.

But ten years out, I find myself working for the Lutheran Church (ELCA) and also representing the Episcopal Church. And sometimes Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Catholic, but that's another story. Here ten years later, the club of pastors whose jobs are a result of the CCM is fairly small. And we don't all know one another. But we're here, and we're offering something to our churches you don't often find in a regular church--intentional differences.

At the Edge campus ministry house at UC, we've been working on our "Rule of Common Life," akin to the monastic practice of the same name. And one item which comes up in every discussion is that of diversity. We value our differences, not because it looks pretty or attractive to donors, but because those differences in race, sexuality, denomination, faith, gender, socioeconomic status, or politic encourage conversation. It would seem that because we began as multi-denominational, our whole ethos has taken on that flavor.

I don't agree with everything brother Martin Luther wrote. And my Lutheran students don't agree with everything brother Thomas Cranmer wrote. We might all agree with brother CS Lewis, but then again, maybe not. We spend our time listening not for judgement but for connection and for understanding. We don't always succeed. But I don't think a place like this would exist without the Called to Common Mission to push us towards each other so intentionally.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

last week's sermon--Ecclesiastes 1-2

I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that Death is not okay.
Actually, it’s kind of pointless
Like stories we’ve heard of high kids who commit suicide
because they were bullied for being gay
or my neighbor a few houses down who had been clean and sober,
Who had dedicated his life to helping other addicts clean up
My neighbor who was murdered last year in his house
by God knows who
or all the civilians being killed in Ivory Coast and Libya
in complicated wars that seem to be based on who’s in power
“Vanity, vanity,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes
“all is vanity and a chasing after wind,” am I right?
Vanity is not a great translation, though, of Ecclesiastes’ words
the word is more like wind or breath,
something which cannot be seen and dissipates in seconds,
something which has great importance or maybe is meaningless
“Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind”
Death, it seems, isn’t so much gravity pulling us down,
keeping us from soaring with Jesus—
death, it seems, is pointless, empty, unfathomable.
There’s a moment in the movie The Mummy Returns
when the charming archaeologist,
—she’s the wife of the charming, rogueish hero
and mother of the charming young boy—
She dies.
And it’s so anticlimactic.
They’ve just survived a ridiculous amount of supernatural threats
And they’re resting, they’ve won!
And she gets knifed in the ribs.
And tragic.
And as her son and brother look on,
her husband the hero kneels beside her saying
“what do I do, Evie? What do I do? I don’t know what to do…”
and then in tears “come back, Evie, come back, come back”
there is only a breath between the life in her eyes and death,
it’s such a thin moment, such a pointless death
such a chasing after wind
“Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind”
When I worked as a chaplain in the hospital at the University of Tennessee,
death was a constant companion.
Whether or not our patients died,
the possibility was always there, lurking.
It often made our actions feel pointless
what am I praying for, exactly?
For you my brother, to be miraculously healed
of your emphysema after 40 years of smoking?
Or for you, my sister, to find a job
and suddenly pull yourself out of generational poverty? Absolutely! but not with much hope.
Let me tell you two stories of death from that hospital
they might illuminate what Ecclesiastes is talking about
and what it is that Jesus did for Lazarus and us:
In the first, a man in his mid-nineties was admitted to the hospital
with pneumonia
I visited him and his middle-aged daughters
—he seemed charming but frail, as you might expect
They patched him up and sent him on his way
Only a week later, he was back, this time in the ICU
His daughters were there at his bedside constantly,
praying for his recovery
But as the days wore on into weeks, the situation became more grim
The man’s daughters insisted that he remain at a full code status
Meaning that whenever his heart stopped or similar
Eight nurses descended to do CPR
and they broke his ribs every time
His bed was covered with small prayer cloths, and crosses
And several bibles opened to specific passages on healing
When I visited, every single time,
they were on their knees on the floor praying hard
for the return of his health
—and not just health,
but vitality, energy, strength, youth
Brothers and sisters—their devotion and love were palpable
and I do not mock them—
but their unwillingness to see his life as well-lived
and nearing its end was tragic.
And pointless.
He hung on for months and, based on what else I saw at the hospital,
it was because they wouldn’t let him go.
Death became the beast in the room,
prayer became a pointless exercise in denial.
Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind.
Now, in the second story,
a man in his mid-sixties was admitted to the hospital
with complications from heart surgery
When I visited, his family was no less devoted or loving
But their attitude was much different
As he slowly slipped away from them in the ICU
They prayed with and for him
But for a different kind of healing
They prayed for his forgiving folks in his life
They prayed for his own forgiveness
They prayed that they would be able to bear their grief
They prayed that he would be with God
And they said goodbye
“Daddy” they said, “it’s okay. We love you. We miss you.
It’s time to go.”
Now, I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my dad so finally
I don’t want to think about his not being here
I know I’ll have to one day, and it’s not okay.
Breath, breath, all is breath and a chasing after wind
We’re approaching Holy Week and Easter
and it’s easy for us in 21st century American churches
to look across Good Friday to Easter like it’s just a speedbump,
to not really connect with Jesus’ death
to pretend it doesn’t mean much
because we know the end of the story.
He dies, but it’s okay because it’s not for long.
But, people, he dies.
And with him are all our moments of death
—the physical deaths we’ve experienced in our friends and families
the disasters around the world that take so many lives
we cannot comprehend them
and the more metaphorical deaths as well
When you asked someone out and they said no—a little death
When you argue with your spouse
and end up not solving anything
but just feeling bad about it—a little death
when we give in to temptation
—to anger or self-righteousness
or just ignoring another person—a little death
every one of those deaths Jesus takes with him
to the grave on Good Friday
every one of them seems pointless but they’re not.
something else happens in that last breath before dying.
Something happens to us each time someone we care for dies
And it’s not pointless at all.
—why not take a little more time to talk with someone on the street,
why not let go of some theology or political ideology,
why not appreciate every part of yourself
instead of thinking you’re not good enough?
Because we do know the end of the story.
Death is not okay. But it is real. It’s not something we can ignore.
And death is not the end.
Our Christian story says that death,
while worthy of grief, is not the last thing.
There is new life beyond.
And that’s kind of the point of the gospel today
about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
My friend and Lutheran pastor Nadia Tweeted about it:
“before Christ defeats death for good,
he first just gives it a really good slap in the face.”
This is what resurrection looks like, brothers and sisters.
This is what new life in our God is.
New life cannot grow without the end of the old one.
The plants in our gardens go dormant, die in a way,
so that they can come back lush in the Spring
We cannot live a life of charity without first letting our greedy selves die
Death is necessary for new life to flourish
But death is not the end of the story
Whether we react to the deaths we experience with denial
like the two daughters in the hospital
Or whether we react to them with tearful acceptance
like the other family,
death is not the end.
whether we’re talking about the seeming finality of physical death
or the shame of everyday emotional deaths,
it’s not the end
one of my favorite quotes is,
“Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
I saw it on a greeting card at Joseph-Beth, if you can believe it,
and the breath was knocked clean out of my chest.
Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
This is the good news in every single moment of bad news we ever have.
“True life and resurrection cannot deny the reality of death.”
But there is always, always, always new life after death.
Everything will be okay in the end, my brothers and sisters,
whether it’s tomorrow
or it’s the Rapture supposedly on May 21,
or it’s some far-off judgment day,
everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday sermon--Joel 2:1-17

[play clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the army of Anubis arising from the sand and fighting the human army]
That’s a clip from the movie The Mummy Returns
—it’s a fun flick, not particularly deep,
but this bit with the rag-tag good guys
going up against the powers of darkness—it’s very moving.
There’s no way they can survive,
no way to endure the endless onslaught
of the army of the Egyptian god of the dead,
yet they stand their ground,
refusing to give in to the forces pulling them down
into despair and death.
And it kind of looks like the Old Testament.
We all think of the Old Testament as angry and judgmental, right?
That reading from the prophet Joel—how much of that did you take in?
It was a bit long, I know…
It talks about invading armies like darkness,
destroying everything in their path
God at the head, leading them on, calling for bloody recompense
—that reading from the prophet Joel doesn’t help, does it?
God just seems so cranky in the Old Testament,
so violent and approving of violence
and we go with it, don’t we?
There’s some good stuff there, but it’s mostly blood and sand
and angry people fighting each other in God’s name
It’s convenient to forget the violence in the New Testament
The places where Jesus throws the vendors out of the Temple
with harsh words like a lash
The places where Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs,
even though it isn’t fig season, which the text points out
The place where Ananias and Sapphira, Christian converts,
sell their land and give the money to the Apostles
for the well-being of the church.
And, because they hold some of the money back
and lie about it, they drop dead. Right there.
And then Peter launches into a sermon on the spot.
Don’t tell me the New Testament doesn’t have it’s share of violence.
Don’t say Jesus is all sunshine and comforting stories,
because you’ve missed the point.
Absolutely Jesus shows us a different way, brings hope and comfort
Absolutely he brings and is good news!
But there’s a darkness mixed into the message as well.
We see the anger in the Hebrew prophets
We see the weirdly abrupt shifts of mood in the Psalms
And we don’t get it
we see them as evidence of God’s capriciousness,
God must be this vindictive, when we don’t do as God asks, right?
Scripture says it, so let’s take it seriously for a moment.
Tremble in fear, says the text, and we reject that out of hand.
We oughtn’t fear our God who loves us like a parent.
Yet the scriptures are full of language describing God as awesome
…and not like most of us use it now.
Awesome as in worthy of awe,
so inconceivably large, so powerful, so beautiful,
so overwhelming that all we can do
is crash to our knees and gape.
Maybe pray.
Maybe cry in joy and fear.
If God is omnibenevolent and omnipresent
and omniscient and omnipotent,
maybe we’d better be at least a little scared.
Joel writes, “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible
indeed—who can endure it?”
If God sends the armies, seriously, who would survive?
There’s a new book out that I’m eager to read
It’s called Love Wins
and author and pastor Rob Bell says in the promotional material,
“What is God like? …Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that God ever be good news?”

What is God really like?
How does God act in the world?
Seems to me that these are the questions
that scripture, at the very least, is trying to answer
What is God like?
In verse 12 of the Joel reading, we get a sudden shift
Invading armies, fear and trembling, yadda yadda…
—yet! “God is gracious and merciful
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”
This is the God we know from every sermon ever
This is the God we long for, the God who we love and are loved by
This is the God from whom we can believe good news
But what if they’re both God?
What if God is both angry and forgiving?
And what if God isn’t bipolar, as my friend Ross suggested last night,
but is complex and not easily understood?
At the risk of describing God in too small a way, I offer an example
I have a 2-year-old and she’s delightful
I would go so far as to quote God from last week’s Gospel
“this is my daughter, my beloved,
in whom I am well pleased”
being 2, Abby is innately curious and exuberant
and, being 2, she has no filters yet,
and so any roadblock is a huge crisis
by “huge crisis,” I mean, “reason to throw herself
on the floor and scream and cry”
so, the other day, we were watching Toy Story as we often do
and Abby had a cup of juice without a lid
now, this may have been my big mistake, the no-lid thing,
but she’s a big girl and often can drink unaided
I said, “be careful with that cup, Ab”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And I said, “I’ll be right back—don’t sit on the couch”
And she said, “OH-kay!”
And from the other room I heard her say “more juice”
And I looked and she’d spilled it
All over the couch
And the floor
And my papers
And I was angry
—angrier than I ought to have been, probably
But I would never, absolutely never ever hurt her
In that moment I was both angry and forgiving
I was both frustrated with what had happened
and deeply in love with my daughter
we forget that much of scripture is poetry
—the prophets and the Psalms are experience and art
not history or biography
Joel is a poet, translating what he sees in the world into verse
Seeing his country, his faith, his enemies, and his blessings
through the lens of metaphor
Joel is writing not about a specific invasion then or now
But about every invasion Israel had had to that point,
about the fear in his gut at seeing an army arrayed on the horizon,
ready to descend,
about the experience of being at war
and he’s writing about invasions of locusts
which, by all accounts, were fairly common in Israel
locusts which, when swarming, make a sound like a raging fire
locusts which destroy an Eden-like landscape in minutes
locusts which might seem like an army,
which might seem like divine retribution for our sins
Joel is writing a poem where God’s anger is the invading armies
and it is the devastation of locusts,
and where all of that fear and despair becomes,
in the blink of an eye,
This is not the work of some dumb desert-dweller
who only saw God as angry,
nor is it a literal picture of God
leading heavenly armies to destroy us now
This is a painting of a multi-faceted God
who loves us
and is annoyed by us
and who created us in the beginning for community and love.
And who relents.
Who does not hurt us, no matter how often we say
“it’s God’s will” in response to something bad
who scatters the invading armies like so much sand
and who calls us back every week, every day,
every hour, every minute
to faithfulness, justice, compassion, and prayer
What if the imposition of these ashes is our responding to that call
Is our saying that we ourselves have been the invading armies
to someone
and that the armies we see invading us
—whether Islamic extremists, Christian extremists,
Communists, the British, secularism, conservatism, etc.—
these armies, like us, are but dust, and to dust they shall return.
What if the imposition of these ashes is us standing our ground,
Like the guys in The Mummy Returns
Receiving these ashes is our refusal to give in
to the forces pulling us down into despair and death.
What if the imposition of these ashes and the communion that follows
Are a gift from God of patience and strength
and protection and deep, abiding love
What if these ashes signify humility—of course—and also new life?
[play second clip from The Mummy Returns: composite clip of the human army preparing to face a second wave of the army of Anubis, the sand-army rushes forward and at the last second disintegrates into black sand which disappears. The humans rejoice.]