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:


"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.

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 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.