Friday, April 22, 2011

Theological Commentary - Maundy Thursday Sermon

After reading my Maundy Thursday sermon, I know that some of my seminary friends are throwing a fit.  They might be accusing me of seeing the Holy Eucharist as simply a meal by which we remember Jesus, and not something by which God can work.

This all goes back to the debates concerning the Eucharist in the 16th century.  Catholics taught that the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ (I won't get into this too much, but if you're curious, just read Aristotle!).

On the other hand, Protestants taught that this was a memorial meal.  A chance to simply remember what Jesus had done, but without attaching any sort of significance to the bread or wine.

Now Anglicans took a different direction.  Anglicans taught (and should still!) that what becomes of the bread and wine makes no difference.  What matters is that the bread and the wine are good for us; that they effectually work for our good.

Now my sermon on Maundy Thursday (drawing on I Corinthians 11:23-26) emphasizes the fact that the Holy Eucharist is a meal by which we remember Jesus.  " this in remembrance of me."  But I don't stop there, and I believe that my sermon is firmly within the Anglican tradition.  Because we remember what Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works within us as we continually grow in God's grace.  In other words, I believe that with God's Spirit, our memories can be efficacious.

This is akin to repentance.  In order to repent, we first have to look back and remember what we have done wrong.  Then, and only then, after we have recognized (literally, "known twice") our faults, can we trust the Holy Spirit to help us grow in our lives of grace.

Maundy Thursday Sermon

Remember Well     
      Dementia is a scary thing.  I’ve had two grandparents struggle with this condition at the end of their lives.  First it started off slowly – they would get disoriented while driving, or forget if they had turned off the stove.  Then their condition would progress, and they would forget what they had to eat earlier that day, or they would call our house over and over again, forgetting that they had just called.  Then, worst of all, they would forget their family.  Daughters, sons, grandchildren were lost in a haze, and they couldn’t remember who we were, or even who we were to them.
            Dementia is a scary thing.  The very ones who raised us, who taught us how to read, how to cook, how to laugh – the ones we could confide in when our hearts were broken, the ones we could rejoice with when we accomplished great things – lose the ability to remember a face that issued from their own bodies.  They forget.
            Being forgotten is a painful experience.  To know and love someone for your entire life and then have them totally forget you is more than heart-wrenching, it can be faith-destroying. 
            There are two fears lurking here; the fear of being forgotten, and the fear of forgetting.  In order to not be forgotten, we do all sorts of things.  We ask those who come after us to build giant tombstones or put articles in the newspaper about what great people we were.  We don’t want to be forgotten.
            But we also don’t want to forget.  We don’t want to succumb to the consequences of or dementia.  So we carry pictures of our loved ones in our wallets.  We write in journals so we remember what we did.  Or, if you walk into my office, you’ll see a hunk of charred wood.  This hunk of wood is part of the remains from Jeff’s and my seminary chapel, which tragically burned down last fall.  The chapel isn’t there anymore, but I can remember it because it’s something tangible, something I can grab on to, to help me remember.
            On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ gave us more than his life.  He gave us something by which we can remember him.  Christ couldn’t bear leaving us without a reminder, knowing full well that we succumb to forgetfulness.  You know these words, you hear them every week.  “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me.”  And “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
            This is a radical type of meal in which we guard ourselves from the oblivion of forgetfulness.  Every time you eat that stale cracker and get a sip of potent wine, Christ is calling you to remember him.  And it’s not “remembering” like remembering what you had for lunch.  It’s remembering in a prayerful sense of thinking back to what God has done in the past.  And the past is two thousand years ago, but the past is also earlier this evening. 
            In the past God created everything out of his love, Jesus was born in a barn, he gave hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless, he lived and then he died and then he lived again.  But in the past, Christ has also worked through your life, and through the lives of other saints.  The real “miracle” of communion is that so much meaning could be packed into a stale cracker and a sip of wine.   By eating this bread and drinking this wine we are guarded against a sort of spiritual dementia.
I know this is why Adele Khoury takes communion.  Adele is the oldest living member of St. Alban’s – 99 years old.  Adele is the sweetest, gentlest person I’ve met in a long time.  But sadly, Adele has trouble remembering things, being 99 years old.  She can’t always remember my name when I see her.  She has pictures of family on the walls of her room, though she can’t always remember who they are. 
But she can remember one thing so well, it’s eerie.  She remembers communion.  She remembers the Eucharist.  In the haze of her mind and in the fogginess of her memory, she can remember Jesus Christ.
Her frail and spotted hands take and eat, and she remembers that God has made her a living member of Christ, and that she is an heir of his eternal kingdom.  And then she takes and drinks, not remembering exactly where she is, but remembering precisely who she is – a child of God. 
So remember this: we need this bread and this wine as much as need regular food and regular drink.  This is the stuff that dispels our fears and gives us the courage to love one another as he loved us. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Exhortation

At supper with his friends, our Lord instituted the sacrament of his body and blood for our sake.  Yes, it's a joyful meal - but one that is also somber.  I commend to your reading these two paragraphs from the Exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer.

"For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s 
commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Palm Sunday Sermon

A Passionate Story, A Passionate Faith
The Passion narrative is aptly named. Stretching back to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and then from his arrest to his execution, this part of the gospel is drenched with emotive power. The crowds in Jerusalem don’t welcome Jesus with a polite golf clap, they literally shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In the garden Jesus doesn’t daintily get on his knees for prayer, he bodily throws himself on the ground. Judas betrays Jesus, not with the distant pointing of a finger, but with the intimacy of a kiss. Peter, upon realization of his own betrayal, doesn’t shed a tear, he weeps bitterly. And finally, to cap the whole passionate story, Jesus screams “Why have you forsaken me?” The passion story is one aptly named; filled with emotion, drama, and raw humanity.

These cries and shouts, the hosannas and the screaming out in abandonment, still continue to echo their way through creation. The summer after my first year in seminary, I worked as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital in Dallas. Children’s Hospital is also a passionate place. Parents and family loudly shout praises to God in the hospital’s corridors when they heard good news; when their baby daughter made it through surgery; when a toddler son was released back into his father’s care. Along with the crowd on that first Palm Sunday they shouted “Praise Jesus! Praise the Lord of Lords!”

But for every cry of victory, there were shouts of agony. One evening I saw grown men – fathers, uncles, grandfathers - release their raw humanity in sobs of anger and pain when a young girl died on her hospital bed. They actually cried out to God, asking why they had been  deserted, when they saw their granddaughter, their niece, their daughter, lying there cold and lifeless and dead. And there was one Spanish speaking woman, whose infant daughter died after just a few days of life. Along with Christ on cross, she let fly with all her agony and grief and pain – and could only manage to say “porque?!” “Why?!”

Right now, I cannot answer that woman’s haunting question - the very same question that Jesus asks on the cross. You’ll just have to come back next Sunday to hear the answer. But when I think back to those shouts of joy, or when I remember grown men collapsing  in grief, when I recall those experiences and when I read through Jesus’ Passion – I see the same story because in everyday life there is triumph and joy. Think back to those moments in your experience. A wedding day. The birth of a child. Your first kiss. A job well done. And then think of how joyful you were – how on days like that you just wanted to shout out to the whole world how great you felt! Hosanna to the Son of David! Praise the Lord of Lords!

And in the very same life, something can snap, and we cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why did you let my husband get cancer? Why have I been laid off? Why did my child die? Why have you forsaken me?

Palm Sunday encompasses the whole range of human life. It allows us to shout our praises as well as our curses to God. In the safety of this day, and of this liturgy, the story exposes us to the raw humanity of Jesus’ passion.

And it’s that precise word that must be remembered. Passion. Though the Passion story and Palm Sunday only come once a year, that doesn’t mean that we can only let our emotions move our faith once a year. As Christians, we shout with joy and we are crucified on a daily basis. Instead of just storing up these emotions in some back corner of our soul, they need to come out, to change how we pray and how we live by faith.

Have you heard that crack about Episcopalians, how we are the “frozen chosen.” How we like to just sit in our pews and let the priest pray for us, let the choir sing for us, let others do the work of ministry. As Christians, and most especially as Episcopalians, we need to prove that joke wrong. Our faith should not and cannot be a frozen one. Our faith in God, our prayer life, our worhsip, have to be Passionate.

There is no room for timidity in the Church of God.

Don’t let me and Jeff just pray for you, pray with us. And don’t let our beautiful choir sing for you, sing with us. Don’t let other people carry the load of ministry, serve with us.

This is what it means to have a passionate faith. That when you see a triumphant procession or a crucifixion, you channel your emotions into faith. You may cry out Hosanna to the Son of David – look at what’s happening in the St. Alban’s Outreach Center! But don’t just look – carry your palm frond of joy over there and become a GED tutor or an English mentor. Or, you may see some other people that need the church’s ministry. Don’t just say “My God, why have you forsaken them!” Pick up your cross and walk to their Golgotha. This may mean  starting a new group, another ministry, a different way to spread the passionate faith of Christ. You may not think that what you offer is much. But all Jesus got was a bit of sour wine on a
stick, and that was enough. We are not frozen, we are a people being called by God to carry both palm fronds of joy, and crosses of sorrow.

However you express your Christian faith, be passionate about it. Those people at Children’s Hospital understood this. Disciples know this. So pray passionately. Sing passionately.  Serve passionately.

For Christ's sake, be passionate.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

what kind of church?

Driving through Waco today, I noticed a new church. That is a frequent occurrence in Waco.  In fact, I call this city "Jerusalem on the Brazos."  The church sign was curious (the picture on the left is just something funny I found on the internet); it was advertising for the "Independent Methodist Episcopal Church."  That's a lot of adjectives!

The one that struck me the most was "Independent."  I suppose that particular congregation is not affiliated with any other congregation.  I can suppose further that this independence leaves this particular congregation to formulate their own liturgy and doctrine, to construct their own Christianity.

I don't know how else to put it, so I'll be blunt - that's just wrong.  The Church is by no means independent.  It is in the very DNA of the Church to be in communion with others, to be a community locally and globally.

For Christians, independence is not the final goal of life.  In fact, the reverse is true.  The whole point of the Christian life is to grow into dependence on Jesus.  From there, we grow into mutual sharing and love for our neighbors.  We are never independent from each other.  We are responsible to one another.  And if we separate ourselves, if we divvy up the Kingdom of God into little "independent" provinces, we wither and die.  Life is found together.

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the dead, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in buildings itself up in love. - Ephesians 4:15

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I lift up my eyes

Deep Space
Last night I was walking our dog, Lady, around the block for her evening "potty break."  Whenever I do this in the evening, I try to look up and gaze at the heavens.  In Waco we are fortunate to see a fairly good number of stars in the night sky.  So I saw Orion making his way to horizon, not to appear again until autumn as he and Scorpio continue their endless chase through the heavens.  The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper were there, pointing the way north.

But then I noticed something peculiar about one star, Arcturus.  (If you continue the arc of the Big Dipper's handle through the sky, you will see Arcturus.  "Arc to Arcturus."  It's very bright, you can't miss it.)  Never before, in all the hundreds of times I've looked at Arcturus did I notice how it pulsates.  If you look carefully, you can perceive it twinkling through a small spectrum of reds and yellows.

Psalm 123 begins, "To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!"  Now I don't think that God really lives in outer space, but I do think that God's presence is among the stars of the night sky just as he is present in the Eucharist.  Because in both of these - the heavens above and the bread and wine set before us - there is life.  Looking at it theologically, through the lens of the Psalms, Arcturus' pulsating is visual worship and praise of the Lord who created it.  The stars are beautiful, and in their beauty, they give glory to their Lord Creator.

Arcturus is a star, a great nuclear reactor in the sky that gives light and warmth.  But it's more than that - it's a beautiful beating heart that gives glory to its maker and redeemer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Burial Plans - Part 3

Exactly what I don't want

Part 3 of my burial plans is miscellany.  So here I go.

I don't want to be in a fancy casket.  Just get a pine box that will hold me. It's not like a metal coffin is going to do any good to preserve me.  I'll be dead, remember?

Don't put flowers on my casket.  Instead, I want to actually be lowered into the dirt.  I don't care what the funeral home says, I want everybody to see the coffin in the ground with earth on top of it.

Whatever you do, don't put astroturf around my place of burial.  I love the woods and the fields and the outdoors.  I know what grass should look like and feel like and smell like.  And that's what should be at my burial.  It's okay if the priest and everybody else gets dirty.  Life is messy, and so is death.  

And don't cover up that mound of dirt with more astroturf and flowers.  Let's not kid ourselves - the dirt goes on top of the coffin.

Most importantly, let everything follow this extraordinary note in the Prayer Book:

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy.  It finds all its meaning in the resurrection.  Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.

The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation , will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian.  The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death.  Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend.  So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Burial Plans - Part 2

Music at a burial is beyond important.  If the scriptures, sermon, and Eucharist provide the theological and spiritual context, then the music provides an appropriate emotional release and will create palpable memories.

For instance, I can't tell you the scripture readings from my grandmother's funeral, but I still remember singing "Amazing Grace."  Maggie, my wife, always says, "they sang 'I will raise them up on eagle's wings' at my grandmother's funeral."  You may forget the service, the music will stay.

Sequence Hymn (Hymn before the Gospel) - #199 "Come, ye faithful, raise the strain"
This song is Easter.  Whenever I think about it, I can smell the lilies.  What strikes me about this hymn is the progression of the resurrection them in the four verses.  1 - The Passover and Exodus; 2 - Easter Day; 3 - the season of spring; 4 - destruction of our death.

Offertory Hymn - #287 "For all the saints"
Not only is burial an Easter celebration, but it also contains some All Saints' Day overtones.  At our deaths, we join that great communion of all the saints.  So we had better sing about it!  And this hymn perfectly suits a burial because the saint that we are burying is finally resting from labor.  And you had better sing all 8 verses!  
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Hymns during Communion - #335 "I am the bread of life"
The Bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world, and they who eat of this bread, they shall live for ever, they shall live for ever.  I can't pass that one up!

#620 "Jerusalem, my happy home"
Fits perfectly with the reading from Revelation 21.  Our homes on the last day, at the re-creation of all things, will be that heavenly Jerusalem come to earth.

Closing Hymn - #493 "O for a thousand tongues to sing"
I cry every time I sing this song.  No joke.  And it's always verse 5 that gets me.  Hear him, ye deaf, ye voiceless ones, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold, your Savior comes; and leap, ye lame, for joy!  Thanks be to God that in the resurrection that diabetes will be a scar to remember, not a reality to live with!  This hymn may as well say, "you diabetics, you struggling with illness and disease; Christ will heal and bind every wound and sorrow and memory."

O how glorious will that feast be at the great banquet table of God!  

Burial Plans - Part 1

Christian Burial
Some of you may think it's a bit morbid to plan my own burial on my blog.  But I believe that death and dying has become a wrongly privatized affair.  Christians must see death through the appropriate corporate, communal, and celebratory lenses.  Christian death is an Easter celebration, an opportunity to rejoice at Christ's victory over the grave.  And this should be a public celebration - why do you think they publish obituaries in the newspaper?  So here it is - out there for all the world to see!

I'll be doing a three blog entries about my own burial service: Part 1, the Holy Scriptures, Part 2, the Music, Part 3, Miscellany.

Old Testament - Isaiah 25:6-9
"He will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth" (v 8).
This is my Easter hope and faith.  That in Christ's resurrection, death has been swallowed up and conquered forever.  Therefore the shedding of tears will no longer be because of pain and death, but because of joy and mirth.
Psalm 95: 1-7
This is not an option listed in the Prayer Book; screw it.  There are two pieces of scripture that I say every single day of my life.  The Lord's Prayer is one, and this is the other.  This is the Venite, the portion of the psalter that opens up Morning Prayer and stirs my heart to prayer.  I come before the Lord daily on my knees because he has molded the dry lands, and the heights of the hills are his also.  We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.  And on that day, my own Easter day - that will be the day that I finally fully hearken to the voice of my Lord.  Alleluia!

New Testament - I Corinthians 15:20-58  
This is the classic Anglican New Testament reading for burials.  And it is perfect for me.  As a diabetic, I know just how perishable and corruptible this present body is.  I am greatly looking forward to that day "when this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled; 'Death has been swallowed up in victory'" (vv 53 - 53).

Gospel - Luke 24:13-34
That's right, the road to Emmaus.  Again, this is not an option listed in the Prayer Book.  But if burial is an Easter celebration, why not read from the Easter stories?  There is another element here.  My life has been a journey - sometimes I don't see God, sometimes I am talking with God and don't even know it.  But Jesus has been gracious enough to break bread for me, to open up his life to mine.  With the disciples I can boldly proclaim, 'The Lord has risen indeed!"   

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


In today's passage from Jeremiah, the Lord likens his care for Israel to a pottery fashioning a vessel out of clay.  Now let's not make the immediate jump to some of those sappy Methodist hymns about how God is the potter and we're the clay and if we let God do everything, then everything will be alright.  At least here in Jeremiah, that's not what God is getting at.

This is what Jeremiah saw: "The vessel the potter was making of clay was spoiled in his hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him" (Jeremiah 18:4).  God then relates that to what he can do with nations and kingdoms: "Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel" (18:6).

What's important here is that nothing is left to fate, nothing is set in stone.  With a little bit of reworking from God, whatever is broken can be made anew, whatever was ugly can be made beautiful.  

If a church is dying, it's downright un-biblical to throw up our hands and say, "Let's shut it down!" without trying to let God rework it.  Or if it seems that our country is on a certain course, it's un-biblical to give up and say, "Oh well, it was a good run."  We must allow ourselves to be formed, to let God spin us around the wheel.  This may mean that the changes are painful, and that we will look very different from what we did before.  But that's good - it shows that the master craftsman is doing his job.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

my little black books

Yes, I use Moleskine brand notebooks
You may not think of it this way, but church registers of baptisms, weddings, and funerals are important historical documents.  Through the research of these registers, historians can discern everything from fertility rates to migration patterns to epidemics to divorce rates.  But that's kind of cold and statistical.

I keep a personal record of baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  Every wedding that I officiate or assist in officiating, every person I baptize, and every burial that I am present for are recorded in three little black books.  Along with the basic information, I jot down some notes about these services as a way to remember them.

I keep these records partially for historical purposes, but also for spiritual purposes.  These three notebooks contain the joys and trials and blessings of a multitude of Christians.  Even though I have only been keeping these records for 8 months, already the pages are beginning to fill with the names and dates of these holy celebrations.

When I die, all the books on my shelf can be sold, given away, or kept to collect dust somewhere.  But I earnestly pray that somebody takes the time to look through these little black books, to see my chicken-scratch handwriting that has recorded these moments of the Holy Spirit, and to pray with me for these Christian souls whose names will never leave my books.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Idle Worship

One of the themes in the book of Jeremiah is the denunciation of idol worship.  The Lord hates idols because they are made from our hands, and they have no power in themselves.  "Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk.  Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good" (Jeremiah 10:5).

Now I am not quite sure that we make idols or false gods in this sense.  I don't know about you, but I have never picked up a rock or fashioned a stick into a god of my own choosing.

But what really causes the Lord to become jealous is the worship of that idol.  The Lord is not threatened by the idol itself, but is angry at us when we divert our attention elsewhere.

Though it's a convenient play on words, I sincerely believe that being idle has become the new idol.  So many of us want to rush home and veg out in front of the TV.  Instead of actively pursuing worship opportunities or personal spiritual lives, we find ourselves surfing through endless hours of facebook.  This idleness is idol worship, because it takes away our time, energy, and focus on worship of the true God.

Rather than idly worshiping ourselves, we need to worship the One who created us by engaging in creative activities of study and work.  I am not saying that you should never relax.  But relaxing doesn't necessarily mean plopping down on the sofa for a few hours each night.  Recharging our batteries or taking it easy should also mean praying, reading the Bible, worshiping.