Thursday, December 23, 2010

in the darkness

John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overcome it."

That verse will be a part of the reading at St. Alban's on Christmas Eve.  Here is what Archbishop William Temple has to say about it:

"Image yourself standing alone on some headland in a dark night.  At the foot of the headland is a lighthouse or a beacon, not casting rays on every side, but throwing one bar of light through the darkness.  It is some such image that St. John had before his mind.  The divine light shines through the darkness of the world, cleaving it, but neither dispelling it nor quenched by it.

"As we look forwards, we peer into darkness, and none can say with certainty what course the true progress of the future should follow.  But as we look back, the truth is marked by beacon-lights, which are the lives of saints and pioneers; and these in their turn are not originators of light, but rather reflectors which give light to us because themselves they are turned towards this source of light."

Be a mirror.  Reflect the divine light of Christ into this world of consuming darkness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the heavenly city

Revelation 21 describes the heavenly city of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.  The images are pretty awesome.  But after reading it, I think that God must own a mining company.  Just read this litany of minerals and jewels that make the foundations of the city: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst.  Whoa God, have you moved to West Virginia?

The picture posted on this blog is hilarious, mainly because it tries to depict all of these jewels as if the city of God were really made up of shiny rocks from the earth.  Come on now, that's just silly.

Take, for example, this description of the streets in the heavenly city: "and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass" (Revelation 21:21).  Okay, first of all, is there only one street in the heavenly Jerusalem?  Traffic must be killer.  Second, since when did gold become transparent?  Last time I looked at my wedding ring, you can't see through gold.

My point is this: I find it hilarious that people try to depict the heavenly city with earthly images.  Revelation is juxtaposing these images which make no sense precisely because it is impossible to imagine the heavenly city this side of death.  So everybody chill out - put away your watercolors - and use a little bit more imagination.  The Holy Spirit can do amazing things with a lively mind.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

knowing and the peaceful kingdom

Isaiah 11:9 reads: "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." 

Just before this verse, there is a lengthy description of the peaceful kingdom - a time and a place in which the wolf shall lie down the lamb and the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp.  All of the natural world and every part of creation shall live in harmony and in love.

I know - it sounds like a utopian pipe dream.  But it's only the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth. 

What strikes me is how it is knowledge of the Lord that creates the peaceful kingdom.  In the Old Testament, knowing somebody means having sexual intercourse with them.  So having "knowledge of the LORD" is a wonderful and insightful word play.  In other words, having a deeply intimate and loving relationship with the Lord is a sign of God's reign.  How delightfully...provocative.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

turns out, the Bible is awesome

Check out this verse from Isaiah (9:5):

"For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire."

It seems that the Bible has entered the fray and all of the sudden became weirdly political, apocalyptic, and freaky.  So what the heck is going on?



In a strange sort of way, this prophecy from Isaiah is actually meant to offer consolation and hope.  The Israelites were suffering oppression and occupation at the hands of the Assyrians.  The great hope was that a new king would be coronated to free the Israelites from darkness and tyranny.

Of course, as Christians, we see this prophecy in the long view.  Jesus Christ has been born for us, and all authority rests on his shoulders.  His name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

Is Jesus burning blood-soaked garments in the fire?  Well, no actually.  Because it was his own garments that became covered with blood in his all-loving sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Already, But Not Yet

My sermon from yesterday is posted below.  The text is Matthew 11:2-11.  Enjoy.


The disciples of John the Baptist are pesky inquisitors. They approach Jesus with a question much like ours: who exactly is this Jesus guy? They ask, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus, being the sly Savior that he is, answers them with no answer at all: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus won’t give an answers of words, because words are cheap – actions tell the true story.

And Jesus’ actions are pretty awesome. Medical and social ailments vanish into thin air as Jesus lays hands on the lame and cures the lepers. This isn’t just good news – this is great news! Finally, it seems, once and for all, pain, poverty, and mortality have met their match in Jesus the Christ. The Messiah has come into the world to make us whole.

Except when he hasn’t. And the good news becomes a false alarm.

One dreary November morning what vanished into thin air was not any malady – but my very confidence in life. On that dreary November morning I received a phone call from a blood lab. The faceless voice on the phone said, “Jimmy, your blood sugar is five times higher than what it should be. You have juveniles diabetes.”

Packed into that phone call were all sorts of messages that I have learned in the four years since that diagnosis. “Jimmy, you may lose your feet one day. Jimmy, there’s a good chance you’ll go blind. Jimmy, your chances for heart attack and stroke have skyrocketed. Jimmy, there’s a good chance this disease will kill you.”

My story is not unique. I do not have to catalog the innumerable medical and social ills that come crashing down upon our lives. I know that you have received that phone call, that letter, that email that has irrevocably changed your life – and maybe not for the better. And in the face of the sheer madness of it all, what does Jesus say? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” Speaking for myself, a little part of me rolls my cynical eyes and says, “yeah…right.”

Now on the surface, it probably appears that I am a walking, talking, praying oxymoron. Because, as a matter of fact, I do believe that Jesus Christ did indeed cure the blind and raise the dead. He walked around in first century Galilee doing all manner of marvelous works. But I also know that Jesus Christ has not cured me. I prayed for healing, hoping that the phone call was just a bad dream. And then I stick my finger and check my blood, and yeah, I am still incurable.

Now all is not lost.

I want you to imagine a giant Venn Diagram. Do you remember those? The educational tools that your teachers made you use in middle school English? Just imagine that in one circle you have everyday, common life. And in that first circle there is joy and happiness yes. But there is also an unequal share of pain, misery, anguish, and evil in that first circle. There is what it means to be human – to know what that first circle is like.

In the second circle you have – for lack of a less theological term, the Kingdom of Christ at the second advent. The second advent is when Christians believe that Jesus, in some form or fashion, will return to and restore the entire earth. That’s when all disease, all hurting, all pain, all misery and evil will be vanquished, once and for all. The Kingdom will swallow up death forever.

So what’s left in the middle? That little sliver of both circles that is supposed to show how two different things are similar? You have us – living in the time of the first advent. We live in an age when Jesus Christ healed the sick and raised the dead, but also in an age when we still succumb to disease and perish. We recognize that yes, indeed, Jesus and the Kingdom of Christ have broken into this world – but not fully yet. Because we also recognize that we are still susceptible to the vagaries and harshness of fleshy life.

Now being stuck in the middle can cause us to throw up our hands and say, “what’s the use!” But rather than giving it up, there is something we can do in the meantime.

In the meantime, we have to keep our eyes open for those little glimpses of the Kingdom of Christ that have broken into our world. Because we live in a world where God’s grace seasons our lives with unexpected miracles and joys. Many of us witness the work of Christ all the time. Take my wife, Maggie, for example. She works as a physical therapist, and everyday single day she sees the Kingdom of Christ breaking into this world. Jesus said that the lame are now walking. And if you were to go to work with her you would see those words coming alive. We also have these wonderful little medical gadgets – glasses and hearing aids. Yes indeed – the blind can see and the deaf can hear. Why can’t we say that these are glimpses of the Kingdom of
Christ breaking into this world of ours? They’re not perfect, but they are signs of the coming age when all eyes shall be sharp and all ears shall be keen.

In the meantime, we are living in a very, very long Advent. We are waiting, waiting, waiting, with great expectancy. We are looking forward to that final and triumphant Christmas Day when the Kingdom of Christ breaks into this world not as a little baby, but as the re-creator of all things. So in the meantime, before the final dawning of that magnificent Christmas morning, take up an Advent discipline for life. Become like those disciples of John who came to Jesus.

In the meantime, go into all the world, and tell them what is happening and what will happen. Go and tell that the blind are beginning to receive their sight, but at the end, they will all see. Go and say that the lame are beginning to walk, but at the end, they will all be leaping for joy. Shout from the mountaintops how the lepers are being cleansed but at the end they will be fully clean, that the deaf are beginning to hear, but at the end they will all hear. Go and tell that the poor have heard the good news, and at the end, they will be the good news. And finally, in the meantime, go and tell them that the dead are being raised and on that final Christmas
morning, all the dead will be alive again. Tell them that yeah, I’m incurable, I have a terminal case of being human, but tell them that you have seen the Kingdom of Christ, and that you know how the story really ends.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

nine years and counting

Today I go before the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Texas for one final interview before my ordination to the priesthood.  It has been a very, very, very long road.  I first felt this call nine years ago - and now here I am, on the very cusp of fulfillment.

What have I learned in all this time?  Well, I've learned how to be patient.  Waiting 3285 days just for some dude to put hands on your head takes a lot of patience.

But I have also learned what it means to be dedicated.  I don't think I could have waited all nine years if this calling was made up. 

But most of all, I've learned that my clock doesn't run on the same time as God's clock.  God has watched me go through this process, go to college, leave for seminary, and now work here at St. Alban's - all with this goal in mind.  But I believe that God has always seen me as a priest, and these nine years have been about teaching me what it means to live into this vocation.  For God, I was ordained to the priesthood when I first said "Here am I; send me!" 

What happens ten days from now will just be a formality, a temporal and material affirmation of what is an eternal and spiritual truth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Here am I; send me!

The Old Testament reading for my ordination service will be Isaiah 6:1-8.  In a strange quirk of liturgical calendar, that is also today's reading for the Daily Office.

Now of course the last line, "Here am I; send me!" is perfect for ordinations.  But there are other reasons that I treasure this passage.

First of all, I love the majestic and magnificent image of the Lord's presence and glory filling the temple.  The hem of the Lord's robe (God wears clothes?) filled the temple.  Whoa, that's huge.

It's so huge and magnificent that the angels of the Lord have to hide from God's very presence.  Apparently they have six wings (also weird).  With two they fly.  With two they cover their faces from the glory of God, it's just too much for even them to bear.  And with two they cover their faces (i.e. genitals).

What gets me is that these messengers and servants of God, heavenly beings, have to hide themselves from God's glory.  But the prophet, just a lowly human named Isaiah, is given the gift of speech with God.  Whoa, that's really huge, and super awesome.  But take note: the prophet can only speak with God after his lips have been cleansed by a burning coal.  That's intense! 

But you and I have been given a better coal and a more righteous cleansing.  Any guesses?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

love letters

How long has it been since you have written a love letter?  I mean a really sweet, loving, caring piece of correspondence.  It doesn't have to be to your spouse or partner, but it could be to a dear friend or a relative.  And not just a quick email or a text message.  Even more than posting on somebody's Facebook wall.  Speaking for myself, it's been a long time indeed.

We often forget that the New Testament is a treasure trove of love letters.  First Thessalonians is just that.  Paul is expressing his deep-seated love for the congregation; and not in a weird, creepy sort of way, but in the truest sense of the word.

Now this is also the time of year when most of us send most of our paper correspondence for the year in the form of Christmas cards.  I plan on my own feet to the fire on this one - I actually want to write love letters to the people I care about.  It's the deep-seated love that is repairs wounds, makes stronger bonds, and knits together the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

transformers

Statue at the U.N. headquarters

This oracle appears in both Isaiah and Micah:

"He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4: 3)."

These words, both in their beauty and in their judgment, can speak to our time.  Now, I do not think that this side of the resurrection our world will be without violence or destruction.  Nor am I advocating for the dissolution of the Pentagon.  But that does not mean that we should punt and just wait around for the Last Day when the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

This is what disturbs me: the Episcopal Peace Fellowship reports that we spend $720 million a day on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And right here in Waco 30% of our population lives below the poverty line.
 
I do not say these things because I am a liberal or a conservative or any sort of "-ist."  I only say these things because I believe that if this is God's final vision of the world, then I'm all for it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the faithfulness of a prostitute

Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews contains an extraordinary list of the faithful people of God.  They lived by faith, died by faith, and were examples of Hebrews' own definition of faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

This cast of faithful characters includes some mighty heroes of the Old Testament: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  It mentions some of the lesser characters: Abel, Enoch, and the people at the Red Sea and at the walls of Jericho.  Then the author briefly notes some of the other faithful figures of the past: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.

But among all these great heroes of the faith, there is one person that seems a little out there: Rahab the prostitute.

That's right, a prostitute made it into Hebrews' "Faith Hall of Fame." 

My point is this: the faithful people of God come from all walks of life, all occupations, positions, vocations.  Some are righteous, most are sinners, but above all, they are faithful.  The Church  is not made of perfect disciples of Jesus.  Rather, and more importantly, the Church is made of people like you and me and Rahab who get a lot of things wrong, get just a few things right, but live by faith in Christ.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Keep Awake

I was asked to write a meditation for the Episcopal Church's Advent Daily Devotional.  Turns out, I had the first Sunday.  If you want the full devotional, the link is here:

http://episcopalchurch.org/documents/2010_advent_meditation_guide.pdf

"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day
your Lord is coming". —Matthew 24:42

When I hear this passage, I always think to myself, “Jesus wants me to stay awake until Christmas when we can celebrate his coming. If I put forth the spiritual effort, this Advent will be a period of great expectation and Christmas will be better than ever.” But Jesus didn’t have a church calendar when he said this to his disciples. “Keep awake” is not simply a method of spiritual preparation for Christmas. “Keep awake” is an exhortation that transcends liturgical seasons. “Keep awake” is a way of living a holy life. When we take Jesus’ words to heart, we are rewarded with spiritual riches. We begin to notice the unexpected miracles and the breathtaking flashes of grace that season our daily lives. When we keep awake on this journey called life, spiritual moments become disciplines that lead to a fuller, more intimate relationship with God.

Almighty God, your grace breaks into the world at unexpected moments: Give us the courage and the will to steadfastly persevere until our journeys are over; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is worshiped with you and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

the theology of dialects

In college, I had the opportunity to work at a Boy Scout canoe base in northern Maine.  Simply put, it was incredible.  Just imagine being able to live in the woods for an entire summer totally severed from civilization - and going without a shower for weeks on end.  Ah yes, the teenager's dream.

All that being said, I had a really difficult time communicating with the natives.  I would say, "hey y'all!"  The Mainers would look at me with confusion all over their face and reply, "yessuh mistah."

They didn't understand the concept of "y'all."  Grammatically, this term should be used as the second person plural form of you.  Spanish speakers utilize the vosotros form of words when speaking in the second person to a number of people, just as certain dialects of English use "y'all."  By using this grammatically tenuous phrase, we are recognizing the fact that the term "you" can be imprecise.

Along those lines, let's look at something from 1 Corinthians: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.  For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple" (3:16-17).  Too bad Paul wasn't from Texas, because this would have been a perfect opportunity to use y'all. 

That is, the Greek form of "you are" in the first sentence above is in the second person plural.  You - the church, the body of Christ, the whole congregation, the entire community - is God's temple.  Modern Christianity has an unfortunate tendency to individualize and personalize the good news of Jesus Christ.  Yet the ancient church, those who composed the New Testament and early Christian theology, were speaking to communities

It's not just a Texas thing, and Paul would definitely understand...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ the King sermon

 
          I'm going to be straight with you – I hate politics.  But I only hate it, because I love it.  I love to hate politics because it’s mean and messy.  Especially in today’s political climate, where whole ideologies are boiled down to bumper stickers or yard signs.  And talking, screaming heads are the order of the day.  It’s ugly out there.  And no matter what side of the aisle you place yourself, it’s actually kind of depressing.
             
          During this last campaign cycle the typical mudslinging became out and out brawls.  Depending on the news channel you watch, you could get an entirely different worldview – as if there were two Americas out there, each claiming to be the true voice of the country.  Lately, it hasn’t really felt like the United States of America.  It’s felt more like the “Disunited States that Happen to be located near each in America.” 
            
         As Christians, of course, we also get wrapped up into this big, globular, political thing that’s going on.  If you tell your friends that you are a Christian, all of the sudden you get categorized.  “You’re a Christian?  Well then, you must be for the war against terror.”  Or, “you’re a Christian, then you must support welfare.”  I have a hard time telling folks that it’s messier than that.  And really, that’s because you and I live in a different political reality.
             
        Our true leader is not some slick politician that may or may not get re-elected next time.  As Christians, we don’t put all our eggs into the basket of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, or even that super-whacky constitution that we have here in Texas.  Our religious faith doesn’t come and go in election cycles or ride the economic rollercoaster.  We aren’t disciples of the typical seats of power in Waco, or in Austin, in D.C.  No, we are followers of Jesus Christ.  And the seat of power is no seat at all, it’s a cross.
            
          Today is Christ the King Sunday.  That’s right, Jesus Christ is not a President, a Supreme Court Justice or a Senator.  He’s a king.  Like any good king, he’s not elected by the people he governs, but has a coronation ceremony.  The story we just heard, the crucifixion, or, as I like to call it, the execution story, is Christ’s coronation.  As sick, and as twisted, and as perverse as that may seem, Jesus Christ is king from a cross because God has this cool way of turning everything on its head to make his point.
            
         With the help of folks like Thomas Kinkade, we have forgotten what the execution was really like.  There was blood, and there were guts.  Some soldiers were there – and so there was probably some dirty talk.  And Jesus was executed along with some two-bit criminals; maybe they were thieves, murderes, or maybe they were just your run-of-the-mill thugs. 
            
          This isn’t your typical coronation.  Kings love the pomp and circumstance of their whole realm getting together to celebrate their kingship.  But whereas kings ride in fancy carriages to their coronation, Jesus Christ carried his own cross.  And kings like to hear the crowds cheer their name, Jesus Christ was scoffed, mocked, derided.  A king may get a whole country to love him, Jesus Christ had only one fan at his execution.  One of the thugs, who was being executed one cross over.
            
         And that sign, you know that sign they put above Jesus on the cross.  It said, “This is the King of the Jews.”  You know, they were trying to ridicule him.  That sign was to be a final, sarcastic slap in the face to the man born in a barn.  And in all the gospel stories, this is the only thing that we know that was ever written about Jesus during his lifetime.  It was supposed to be like one of those snarky bumper sticker or yard signs, but that inscription above Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews,” was speaking the truth.  By trying to mock Jesus, they were actually decorating Christ’s throne for his coronation.
            
        In all of this mockery, ridiculing, in all of this scoffing and deriding, in all of this ill-will and hatred – Jesus is crowned King of kings and Lord of lords.  Pretty freaky, huh?

            We elect leaders and give them all sorts of power.  They have to power to make laws, to levy taxes, to wage wars.  They have bombs that can make whole cities vanish in a flash.  And those leaders aren’t there forever.  Not just because they may not get re-elected, but because they are humans, and they will die.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  They pass through this life with crazy amounts of power, only to cough it up as they lose an election or submit to humanity’s final fate.  

            But then there’s Jesus.  What power does he have?  Well, none really.  Our allegiance is to a man with no power.  He can’t hold a scepter because his hand is nailed to a beam of wood.  He can’t speak because all he has to wet his whistle is some sour wine. 

What does he have?  All he has is a promise.  A promise made to a common thug as he was being executed.  “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Jesus has no armies, no Senators, no ability to make laws.  All Jesus has is a promise, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”  But it’s because of that promise that all of us, every tongue that confesses Christ as king, owes our allegiance to him that is nailed to that cross.  

            Living in the United States of America we can get our political wires crossed up.  We can think too much about Bill White or Rick Perry, we can cheer or boo for Chet Edwards or Bill Flores.  When really, our true representative before God in heaven is Jesus Christ.  

            And we can join the Democratic or Republican parties.  We can wear silly hats and show up to political rallies or make phone calls or put out yard signs.  But in the end, our allegiance isn’t to the donkey, or to the elephant.  It’s to the lamb.[1]

            I don’t want us to think of ourselves as liberal Christians or conservative Christians.  We shouldn’t put any modifiers, adjectives, or special phrases in front of our Christianity.  We can’t call ourselves Sundays-only Christians or skeptical Christians or committed Christians.  Why can’t we just call ourselves Christian Christians.  Because that’s what it takes to live in the kingdom of God with Jesus Christ as the king.  

            It’s a different political reality when Christ is king.  You can’t turn the news channel to find one that fits your political preference.  You have to read the Bible because it’s the only one we have.  We can’t work our way into another political party in order to fit our particular ideology.  We have to join the church, because we are disciples of Jesus.  In the kingdom of God, there is no way to put out another yard sign in order to show your allegiance to yet another candidate.  Because in the kingdom of God, we have one sign, that is the cross with that inscription that reads, “This is the King of the Jews.”  

            Being a Christian, living in the kingdom of God, following the King of kings is a messy business.  But it’s the only one worth pursuing.  Because Jesus Christ is King of our lives, king of our church, and yes, Jesus Christ is even king from a cross.


[1] Many thanks to the Rev. Nik Forti for this image.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christ the King

As you may know, this upcoming Sunday is "Christ the King Sunday" in Episcopal churches.  Hooray.

But just remember what this means, especially in light of our politically heated atmosphere: Christ is not an American.  He's not a Republican, a Democrat, a Tea Partyer or even a socialist.  Christ is King.  That's it.  And we hear all the time about United States of America being a Christian nation.  As a Christian, I find this theologically repulsive.  Jesus Christ is King of all creation, not a President, a Supreme Court Justice, or even a Senator of this particular country.  Jesus Christ is King.

And whereas we envision kings as powerful monarchs sitting on thrones and making royal decrees, Jesus Christ was coronated on a cross.  His crown was of thorns.  The crowds that met this new king were mocking, not cheering him.  Christ did not summon massive royal legions or clutch a scepter - his friends abandoned him as he was being executed.

Christ is King.  A powerless, emptied, fragment of a man hanging on a cross.  That is my king.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the most devastating war to ever visit its scourge upon mankind was ended.  Here is a poem by Wilfred Owen, a modern take on Genesis 22,  to remember that day.  Note: Owen was killed in battle on November 7, 1918, seven days before the armistice.

PARABLE OF THE OLD MAN AND THE YOUNG
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . 
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

99 sheep and a sinner ain't one

Jesus told them a parable: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost."  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Have you heard, or maybe said something like this before: "Alright Jesus, so I'm not really that bad of a sinner, I haven't killed anybody and I think that I'm a generally nice person.  Are you telling me that you would leave me in the wilderness with this flock of dumb sheep just to find the one screw-up?  Come on man!"

Let's have a reality check for that self-righteous ninety-nine: if you are thinking that way, you are actually the lost sheep.  It only looks like you are part of the flock because you are near all the other sinful sheep that think that same way.  But that is no flock, because they have no shepherd.

Here's the deal.  We are all that lost sheep.  The Church of Jesus Christ is not made up of the ninety-nine righteous ones.  (This shouldn't be mind-blowing, have you ever read any church history?)  The Church of Jesus Christ is composed of those lost sheep who have been found by Jesus.  The Church, that wonderful and ineffable mystery, has laid upon the shoulders of Christ as he rejoices with all the company of heaven.   

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

for all the saints who from their labors rest

I struck gold at the McLennan County Public Library because "The History of the Episcopal Church in Texas" is not at every Barnes & Noble. 

Like many books of this ilk, it is full of random facts.  For instance, I had no idea that Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, was buried by an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Richard Salmon.  And the seal of the Diocese of Texas has two dates on it, 1838 and 1849.  1838 is listed because the first recorded celebration of the Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer was celebrated on Christmas 1838 in Houston.  1849 is listed because the Episcopal churches in Texas were associated into a diocese in that year.

But this book had more than obscure dates and burial errata.  It recorded the labors of many men and women, lay and ordained, to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Texas.  One of the early missionary bishops, the Rt. Rev. George Washington Freeman, traveled over 7,000 miles in one year across Texas, baptizing, confirming, ordaining, and consecrating.  And remember, he went by horseback, carriage, and boat, not by plane or car.

Or the Rev. Caleb Ives whose passion and energy for preaching the Gospel in Matagorda was for him a mission and a love.  He even turned down more prominent, well-paid positions in other churches and chose to stay on the Texas frontier despite the poverty, fever, and general hardship.

Or Colonel Gray, a layperson, whose dedication to Christ Church Houston sustained the congregation while they were without the services of a rector.  Along with the wardens, he led the church in Sunday worship and read the Burial Office for many Houstonians who died in the 1830s.

For all the saints who from their labors rest...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

inri

INRI is an acronym of the Latin inscription (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which translates to English as "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews."   
The Gospel of Luke records this simple statement concerning Jesus' crucifixion: "There was also an inscription over him, 'This is the King of the Jews'" (Luke 23:38).  A few brief comments on that sign will suffice.

First, this sign was the only thing ever written about Jesus during his lifetime.  Second, and somewhat perversely, this sign is an advertisement, part of the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ. 

But finally, I think that this sign is incorrect.  Jesus is not just King of the Jews.  This sign is only correct insofar as Jews are part of all creation.  Yes, Jesus is King of the Jews, but he's also King of all creation. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

milk and solid food

Today I've been doing some in-depth study of the book of Hebrews (insert nerdy sound here).  I was struck by a passage concerning the basic elements of the faith (milk) and the mature parts of faith (solid food).

"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.  Therefore let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith towards God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement. And we will do this, if God permits."

That's right, the basic things about faith - repentance, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection and eternal judgment.  That's milk!  And if we don't get that right, then we're not ready for ethical instruction, training our faculties to distinguish good from evil.

That is where some of our problems arise.  Before we have gathered all of the pertinent evidence or committed ourselves to instruction in the faith, we are tempted to make rash over-generalizations.  Hebrews is calling us back to the basics, to a place where we can discern the right decision because it grows from our Christian faith.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

poetry corner

Last night at the HeBrews Bible study we had a fascinating conversation about the "world."  Two thousand years ago the idea of the world is very much different from ours today.  And when we say that Jesus is the savior of the world, do we mean just our little planet or are we talking about something bigger.

I am not going to answer these questions, but I am going to let some poetry talk for me.

Taken from Sirach 43:27-33:

"We could say more but could never say enough;
let the final word be: 'He is the all.'

Where can we find the strength to praise him?
For he is greater than all his works.

Awesome is the Lord and very great,
and marvelous is his power.

Glorify the Lord and exalt him as much as you can,
for he surpasses even that.

When you exalt him, summon all your strength,
and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough.

Who has seen him and describe him?
Or who can extol him as he is?

Many things greater than these lie hidden,
for I have seen but few of his works.

For the Lord has made all things,
and to the godly he has given wisdom."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day

This was my first time to vote in an actual booth.  Throughout college and seminary I had always voted by mail.  Admittedly, I had fun this morning casting my ballot.  And even though I don't agree with any candidate on all issues, I did what I did.  My hope is in God, not in any earthly power or principality. 

When I am at a loss for words in trying to articulate my hope for elections, I look in the Prayer Book.  


A Prayer for an Election

"Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints' Day

Here is my sermon from today, All Saints' Day:


When through fiery trials…”
      
 
Two weeks ago, the chapel at the Virginia Seminary was caught up in flames and destroyed by a fire.  As my friends began to call and we shared our collective memories of that place, I found myself singing an old Baptist hymn:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
                                                      Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie.  What had stood as the place of prayer and refuge for 129 years of seminarians was consumed with flame.  The remains now stand as an empty shell, a burned out hulk, a reminder that all around is us ever on the verge of destruction.

My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.  Just because the chapel is now unsuitable does not mean that the Virginia Seminary has stopped praying.  In fact, in the hours and days immediately after the blaze, the seminary community recommitted itself to God’s grace.  True, the chapel is gone, but the prayers of Christians go on and on and on.

The flame shall not hurt thee.  No one was harmed in the fire.  A few hearts were broken, some tears were shed, some embraces were shared.  But even the heat of that old brick and mortar going up in smoke could not melt the faithfulness and resolve of the seminary community. 

I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.  You know what, maybe we didn’t need that chapel after all.  Maybe what had been ignited and consumed was our unnatural attachment to an old building.  Maybe what had been refined was our understanding that the church is not a building.  The body of Christ is not made of brick and mortar, bolts and nails. 

What I saw in the fire was this: as the smoke was rising, I saw the prayers of all the saints who had ever stepped foot in that chapel, ascending to heaven.  The pop and crackle as the stained glass windows were melting were the songs of the saints making known their love for God.  The sirens of the fire trucks were the reminders that yes indeed, it is dangerous to be a saint, because sometimes we have to learn these hard lessons.

But the saints of God already know this.  Look around you, all those who have come before know this.  And those who come after us will learn this.  That even if all the chapels, all the churches, all the cathedrals in the world were to be consumed in a catastrophic fire, the saints of God would remain.  They would continue praying, continue worshipping, continue loving one another as Christ has loved us. 

This is what it means to be a saint.  That our faith in God is sounder than brick and mortar.  That our love for one another is stronger than steel.  And that the real fire is started by the Holy Spirit, and resides in our hearts and in all the Body of Christ. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Changes in latitudes, changes in platitudes

Right now I'm reading the apocryphal book of "Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach."  For all of its wordy and self-important title, I find this book to be drab.  Today's passage was concerned with etiquette while at banquets and how to exercise proper restraint while drinking wine as if that was the end all and be all of morality.  Boring.

Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity harps on platitudes like these, pretending that they represent some greater ethical Truth.  "Good Christian boys wash their hands before they eat."   Actually, I think Jesus wasn't all that concerned with how clean you are before you eat (see Mark 7).  Or, when somebody dies, "well, he was a good person, so he's in heaven now" (check out John 14). 

Many modern Christians adhere to what scholars call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."  MTD essentially says that God created the world and wants us to be happy, that we don't need to ask God for anything unless things get bad, and that good people go to heaven.  This isn't Christianity; this is a way to feel good about yourself.

True Christianity looks beyond these platitudes and is centered upon a life: Jesus Christ.  Christians want to lead holy lives, not for the sake of being nice, but for the sake of Gospel.  Christianity should make us uncomfortable, it is not be all about being nice to one another and believing that "good people go to heaven." 

Christianity is about following Jesus.  Lord knows that the Lord wasn't nice all the time.

 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

i'm back...

Attention all dedicated readers, periodical perusers, semi-regular skimmers: I apologize for my absence from the blogosphere.  Since last Monday, I have traveled to Baltimore once and to Camp Allen twice.  My blogging, and sadly, my scriptural study and personal prayer life has suffered during these travels.

I'll be back to my regularly scheduled blog starting tomorrow morning.  Until then: Peace.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Faithful readers and friends: currently I am in Baltimore at a continuing education conference put on by the seminary. And this is from my phone, and my fingers are already beginning to hurt.

But here it is, the Bible is funny. It is okay to laugh when Psalm 39 says "my heart is hot within me." All I could think of was some southern belle fanning herself after a strapping young "beau" asked to be her partner on the square dance.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

one meal, one ship, one life

Paul, the brave apostle to the Gentiles, while a prisoner for the sake of the Lord, is taken on board a ship so that he may sail to Rome and proclaim his defense of the Way before the emperor.  The seas turn angry, the sun cannot pierce the pall of rain, and the ship is rocked and buffeted by the rain and reef.  The sailors, fearing for their lives, have forsaken food for fourteen days as they struggle to keep their ship upright in the midst of such a tempest.

Aware of their physical and emotional state, Paul urges the sailors to take and eat so that they may be strengthened.  To set an example, Paul takes bread, give thanks to God, breaks the loaf, and begins to eat.  These were the same divine actions that Jesus initiated at the Last Supper and at the feeding of the multitudes.  And now, here on board a battered ship upon a tempestuous sea, Paul imitates his Lord and Sovereign by offering holy food for sustenance and strength in the storm.

When the ship of our lives are in danger of being capsized, when the storm of life is too much to bear, when exhaustion from our futile attempts to hold things together threaten to topple our sails, we need not go hungry.  There is a meal, a gift from Christ, that is strength and sustenance throughout the storm of our lives.  A thankful sliver of bread, a humble taste of wine, and we find that we are not alone on this rocking ship of life.  Ah yes, that ship of our lives has a Captain, one who will steer us through to fairer seas.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

it's a holy sort of vomit

Let's be serious: Jonah is one of the greatest books of the Bible.  It's such a weird, revealing, powerful, and fantastic story, that I love going over it again and again.  We don't know anything about Jonah, other than the fact that he tries to run from God's call.  He's faithful and faithless, wimpy and brave all at the same time.  In other words, Jonah is us.

From the midst of the great fish that God sends to swallow this would-be prophet, Jonah offers one of the most heartfelt and sincere prayers that I have ever encountered.  Even from inside this watery tomb he proclaims: "But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9)

And Jonah was delivered indeed.  The NRSV translation of the Bible says that the great fish "spewed Jonah out upon the dry land" (2:10).  That's right, the fish vomited Jonah. 

What I'm getting at is this: when we find ourselves in sticky situations, when it seems that everything we're doing is going wrong and when we pray for deliverance, God will release us.  But it may not be pretty.  Our deliverance may be covered over with some "holy vomit."  It may require tears and heartbreak to be spewed out from our watery tombs.  Thanks be to God that, no matter how sticky, messy, and smelly that deliverance may be, we will find ourselves upon a fair shore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Defenestration of Conviction

Just yesterday at the St. Alban's Youth Group, or, as I like to call them, "Teenage Theologians," we ran through the whole Bible in just 45 minutes.  I talked fast, drew a lot of pictures on the whiteboard, and told some really great Bible stories.  Part of my plan, and I think it worked, was to show that some of its stories aren't exactly what we would call "holy" and that the Bible doesn't always agree with itself.


Take what we have from Micah 6.  Throughout the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, there are lists of laws describing and prescribing the ritual sacrifices that are to be offered to God.  There are sacrifices for all manner of conditions, emotions, and events in the life of a person. 

But then we encounter the prophet Micah, and we are presented with a totally different outlook.  "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands or rams, and with ten thousands of rivers of oil?" The answer is a loud NO.  What the Lord is truly pleased with is to do what is good: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). 

But that's the great thing about the Bible.  We think we get it, and then we read a little bit more, and all of the sudden, everything we had thought was right is thrown out the window.  It's the defenestration of conviction!