Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Good Shepherd

I am preaching this Sunday at St. Mark's. In the Church calendar, we call this Sunday "Good Shepherd Sunday." The psalm appointed for the day is #23, "The Lord is my Shepherd." The Gospel lesson is taken from John 10:11-18. In this passage Jesus likens himself to the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and takes up his life again. He is not like the hired hand who runs away.

I have two streams of thought for possible sermons.

First, Jesus says that there is "one flock, one shepherd." He has other sheep that he will call and bring into this fold and he will look over all of them. Here, I am struck by the fact that the shepherd looks over the flock, not over each individual sheep. It is not as if each sheep can go wherever he wants and graze in whatever pastures he desires. No, in order to be under this shepherd, you must belong to the flock. In the same way, there is no such thing as a "Lone Ranger" Christian. Followers of Christ can only do so by binding themselves to one another and to God. Jesus is not my personal shepherd, but a shepherd of this flock.

And what good news that is for the church at this turbulent period of time. Our own little branch of God's Church, that of the Episcopal tradition, is being swept about by controversy and hate. Individual churches, dioceses, and provinces are looking to Jesus as their shepherd, they are claiming him as their own shepherd. They say that the wolf has come and snatched parts of the church away.

But in accordance with this passage, we are members of one flock. If we choose to leave that flock, we also leave that shepherd. Then the wolf will surely come and snatch us away.

My other idea comes from my experience in the Children's Hospital. There we used the story of the Good Shepherd for the kids and their families. In this way, they could insert themselves into the story and make it real for them. When asked what the wolf was in their own lives, the responses were often startling but honest: "My cancer," "My father who abuses me," "needles," "surgery." By turning their attention to what was hurting them most, they instantly realized what a great hope there was in the Good Shepherd. This Good Shepherd does not abandon his flock; no, this Shepherd loves so radically that laying down his life is the last full measure of his devotion toward us.

I think this second idea would be a more powerful sermon. It would give me a chance to break out of the academic sermons I have been preaching. Thoughts?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tell Me Why

What gives a doctor his drive?
For what exactly, does he strive?
What makes the nurses tick?
All this pain would make me sick...

Why does the chaplain pray?
Why's he afraid to enter the fray?
Who gives them the incredible shove,
To laugh, cry, die, and love?

That Weary Road

Yet the cycle of life goes on
For after every dusk comes a fresh new dawn

And I suppose I'll go down that weary road
For the friends of life along time have flowed

Will I meet some old friends again
Or continue to stare in the face of ever new men

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chain Mail Theology

I just received a piece of chain email that attempts to describe the human condition of sin, the atonement made for that sin through Christ, and the salvation of mankind. Unfortunately, it does an extremely poor job and propagates some very untrue doctrine.

First, there is a horrendous description of original sin. It claims that there is a "malfunctions in the original prototype units code named Adam and Eve, resulting in the reproduction of the same defect in all subsequent units." This is such a backward view of original sin, the idea that all human beings somehow receive their sin from Adam and Eve. It's as if their mistakes have filtered their way through thousands of generations into us. This is some lame and flaccid theology, but a good way to blame our mistakes and sins on Adam and Eve, instead of taking responsibility ourselves. And please remember, it's not Adam who had this original righteousness and then somehow fell away, only Christ Jesus himself has this original sinless state.

Second, it calls sin "sub-sequential Internal Non-Mortality." Come on now. Even the catechism in our Prayer Book says that sin is turning away from God. It's breaking relationship with God. This definition is just another lame way to pass the buck for our sins.

Third, it claims that you can repair this sin by prayer and repentance. This is dangerously closely to Pelagian. Please remember that only through the grace of God can we ever hope to have the great benefit of salvation.

Fourth, this email theology calls the Bible the "Believers' Instructions Before Leaving Earth." I don't know where to even begin with this. The Bible is not a manual, it is the witness and testimony to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The Bible is not a literal document, strict biblicism only leads to blind un-thinking. In fact, the idea of the Bible as a manual only diminishes its authority. Instead, we must see the Bible as the witness to the salvation of mankind. It is full of power, only because it points to the Incarnate One.

Lastly, it says that nobody with sin will ever enter the kingdom of heaveh because this would lead to the "contamination of that facility." Well, following that line of though, nobody will ever enter the kingdom of God, because as St. Paul so rightly says, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

So this is my conclusion, please read the Bible and read actual theology for yourself. This is the great blessing of the Protestant Reformation, that we can pick up a Bible and read it in our own language. And then, read your Book of Common Prayer. Trust me, these two magnificent works are far better and life-giving than any sappy email theology.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Liturgy vs. Liturgical Symbolism

As I was having breakfast in the seminary Refectory today, the conversation with my peers turned to some of the rituals and traditions of certain churches for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Unfortunately, I was absolutely dumbfounded, amazed, and perplexed at some of the rituals I heard about it.

For instance, some priests like to stab incense into the Paschal Candle to represent Christ's five wounds. Others wash out crosses etched into stone altars with vinegar to represent cleaning Christ's wounds from crucifixion. And then, last but not least, comes the stupid altar candle controversy. According to some, each candle in the church represents something (I don't know what they are). But there is one which stands for the Gospel, and there is an old adage that one must never let the Gospel candle be burning by itself: "The Gospel never stands alone!"

What! This is absolute silliness. First of all, who decided which candle represents which portion of the Bible? Second, why can't the Gospel stand alone? In fact, if there is anything that can stand alone, it is the Good News (that's the meaning of gospel) of Jesus Christ!

So my recommendation to all you Episcopalians out there: don't worry about that silly stuff. The real stuff of liturgy is what we do in the service. We read, hear, and respond to the Holy Scriptures. We pray with one another and for one another. We participate in the most holy meal, the Eucharist, whereby we are brought into communion with God. It doesn't matter how many times you genuflect on the way to the altar, but it does matters how much your heart is humbled in the presence of the Almighty.

These are the important things in liturgy, not candles. The Holy Spirit doesn't need landing lights. He knows exactly where to go.