01 April 2009

the fifth sunday in lent, year b


John 12:20-36

So, have you ever bought anything as seen on tv? A Salad Shooter? OxyClean? Don’t try to pretend that you’ve never been tempted to buy Debbie Meyer Green Bags. Or a Big City Slider Station? Can’t you just hear that Bill Mays guy YELLING at you about how YOUR LIFE WILL IMPROVE and YOUR KIDS WILL BE SO HAPPY if you buy a Big City Slider Station so you can make the perfect little, tiny burger JUST LIKE AT THE RESTAURANTS. And IF YOU ORDER RIGHT NOW you can get a Big City Slider Station cookbook FOR FREE. All this can be yours for 19.99. Plus shipping and handling.

We are easily seduced by the urgency of advertising.

Buy it NOW
it won’t be OFFERED
to YOU

It’s very American of us, isn't it? To be pulled into the fast-paced urgency of NOW and YES and MUST so that we can get SOME before SUPPLIES run out. I make jokes about Billy Mays and the As Seen On TV phenomenon, because it strikes me that it is who we are at our most ridiculous. It exploits our manic frantic need for a quick fix.

We are suckers for a promise, aren’t we? A promise that if we do this we will get that. If we buy this our lives will be easier. If we do this we will be more productive, efficient, happy. We’ll be beautiful. We’ll be rich. It’s all of this stuff, right?

Our culture tells us that the more we have the better we are, and, as a result we can’t get enough of all this stuff that we don’t need.

The current state of the economy isn’t helping, is it?
Everyday it is practically crammed down our throats that supplies are running out.
We’re in the middle of that manic frantic that tells us that there isn’t enough.
We’re losing our jobs. Money is running out. It seems that our natural inclination is to stretch and reach for whatever we can get a hold of.
Whether or not it’s good for us. Whether or not we need it.
Something, anything is better than nothing, and even though we don’t have nothing yet, we’re being told that any day now we’ll find our satchels hollow and our wallets empty. Everything’s gonna run out and nothing is precisely all we’ll have.

* * * * * * * *
Today’s Gospel lesson from the 12th chapter of John brings us to a time when Jesus’ ministry is just itching to go global. It’s not like in the first century they had airplanes or the internet or digital billboards in the sky, so launching a maybe-powerhouse like Jesus much past walking distance was kinda out of the question. But, at the same time, never underestimate the power of the mouth—word of Jesus and his healing and compassion spread like wildfire.

So. It should come as no surprise that just as his life was approaching crescendo, people from other places started showing up. Today, it’s the Greeks. They make a cameo in today’s gospel—they want to see this Jesus guy.

They started the game of telephone. “Hey, Philip. We wanna see Jesus.” Philip went to Andrew, “Hey, Andrew. The Greek people wanna see Jesus.” Then Andrew was like, “Well, come with me!” And together they said, “Dude, Jesus. The Greeks want to see you now.”

“Well, actually...” Jesus said. “They don’t have to see me, because the hour has come. Everyone’s about to know me. God will be glorified.”

…In today’s gospel text it’s not made entirely clear, but we know the story. We know that soon and very soon, Jesus is going to be glorified on the cross. It’s ironic that John uses the word glorified, because there’s no glory in the suffering whippings and beatings and crucifixion. But it is God’s Glory on the cross that draws us into the radical love of God. Our God who is present to all people at all times in the midst of their recession and pain, suffering and grief.

It’s beginning, folks. Until now, this kind of love was limited to a very specific region of the world.
That Grecian Cameo is an important clue for us. They play a symbolic role in today’s Gospel, because they came from a far away land to see Jesus. They show us that the love of Jesus Christ spreads beyond Judea, Samaria, and Galilee—the land he walked. Turns out that today is the day that we find that Jesus Christ’s availability is universal. His love is open to us all the time, no matter what, no limited time offer.

“The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified.”

The time has come for Jesus to be available outside the limits of his land,
through his death and resurrection,
he’s available everywhere,
all the time, to all persons.
Jesus even says that he’s about to be lifted up
so that all people will be drawn to him. All, all, all.

Rich, poor.
Black, white, yellow, red.
Friendless, needy.
Privileged, impoverished.
Educated and stuck-in-a-rut.
Prostitute and slave, doctor and lawyer.
Gay and straight.
Male and female.
Grown ups and school children.

Jesus Christ + The Cross = God’s Glory = Unconditional, Unimaginable, Unfathomable, 100%, No Doubt Everlasting Life & Love for Every Human Being No Matter What.

Of course there’s a weakness with God’s Great Love Equation. It’s the human being part. All, all, all people get to know God’s Love now, but all all all of us are too distracted and scared to accept it. The promise of God’s Glory doesn’t necessarily result in convenience. We might not be more beautiful or more rich. We might not be smarter or better. In fact, being Loved By God 100% doesn’t mean we won’t suffer in this life. Quite the opposite. What God’s love DOES do, however, is meet up where we are. At all times, and in all places, God is With Us. God’s Name Glorified might not be as handy as a salad shooter; it might not give us the immediate results of Oxyclean. But I tell you what:

God’s Love for us—God’s Name Glorified—is sufficient. It’s all we need.
Stained and miserable, God Loves You Anyway.
Depressed and mournful. God loves You anyway.
Doubtful, cynical? God loves you anyway.

And the Good News is that that this stuff is available in abundance. It never runs out, it never gets old. It’s not a limited time offer. No gimmicks. No smoke and mirrors.

No one—no one!—gets to be exempt from the love of God’s Glory. Everyone gets salvation. Everyone gets salvation. No matter what.

And you don’t have to look far at all to find the Glory. You don’t have to look any further than the people sitting to your left, to your right, before you and behind you. God’s Glory is alive and active in every one of us. God created us out of Love so that we might be able to see the face of God Glorified in each other.

I know one thing for sure and it is that the power of human relationships is strong and resilient force. And I believe that the number one way to know God’s Love is to Be In Love With One Another. To reach out, through thick and through thin, to stick together, to not isolate, but move toward community. Toward relationship.

You don’t need the stuff they sell on the tv. You don’t need your fancy handbags or good grades. You don’t need trophies, medals, honors or degrees. To know God’s Glory, you just need each other.

Your families, your friends, your neighbors. You are what God’s Glory looks like.

And it’s a beautiful sight.

22 February 2009

feast of the transfiguration; year b

2 kings 2:1-12
mark 9:2-10

Elijah and Elisha. Two friends on one huge journey. First they find themselves called by God out of Gilgal, just west of the Jordan river. They are to head from there to the land of Judah into a town called Bethel.

“Stay here,” Elijah says to his friend and successor-prophet Elisha. “I gotta run this errand for Yahweh, and it’s forever away. Stay here and preserve your strength.”

“Nope,” says Elisha. “I’m totally coming with.”

Elisha knows that Elijah’s days are limited. It had been made know to them by God that as soon as Elijah’s prophet-work was through, that he would be taken up in a whirlwind—a mysterious, miraculous taking up to a land far, far beyond the Jordon. Elisha wasn’t going to miss a second of his mentor’s last days.

“As long as you live, I will not leave you.” And so they went.

Once the two hit Bethel, they were joined by fifty other prophets. They questioned Elisha’s friendship with Elijah: “Don’t you get it?” Elisha answered: “Yes, I get it.” His devotion was unswerving.

Elijah heard a word from God to carry on southeastward to Jericho.

“Stay here,” says Elijah. “It’s safe.”

“Nope,” says Elisha. “I’m coming with you. As long as you live, I will not leave you.”

When they arrived in Jericho, the scene was similar. More prophets came out of the woodwork to meet the prophet Elijah, the voice of Yahweh. “Don’t you get it,” they asked Elisha, “Why are you attaching yourself to him if he’s just going to leave you?” “Yes, I get it. And I’m sticking with him. Now y’all hush.”

The scene repeats itself one more time. This time, Elijah gets a call from God to head to the Jordan River again, and Elisha is not leaving the side of his friend, his mentor.

As the two men approached the Jordan, the band of prophets hung back a little. The water was deep, and Elijah knew he had to cross it, so he struck the water with his mantle, and the river parted. The land in the gap was perfectly dry, and the two men crossed it to points east, to the other side, leaving the gaggle of followers on the west bank.

This was Elijah’s final destination. This tour through the Promised Land was his swan song. The miles trekked were his last. The words spoke were final. The minutes passed were a means to an end. And there, at the other side of the Jordan, Elisha asked for even double the inheritance: “You’ve done such good, master, I hope for double of your spirit,” he said. And then, the clouds swirl and part and chariots! of! fire! swoop down between the two friends. Elijah is scooped up and spirited away in a whirlwind of power and dust and glory.

For crying out loud, it took chariots and horses on fire from heaven to separate the two men. Such friendship can only be from God.

* * * *

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, where we remember another friendship story. Jesus took with him his pals—Peter, James, and John—to the mountain top where he was greeted by the late great Moses and Elijah, prophets who arrived from heaven for a brief spell to give Jesus a celestial high five of sorts. For it was on this day, atop this mountain, among these friends, that Jesus—literally—dazzled with holiness and then the skies parted for God to speak to the others present: “Jesus is my Beloved!” God said. Jesus is my Beloved.

Friends, there is one thing I know for sure:

God did not want us to do God’s work alone.

This grand experiment of God’s isn’t just to keep God company. Sure, we are to live for nothing short of God’s glory, but what is that glory? What does that look like?

I am convinced that the thing that keeps us connected to our creator, the thing that glorifies our God the most, is our capacity to be in relationship with one another. Community. Getting in it with each other, holding hands tight, not letting go, waiting for nothing short of burning, magical chariots to pry us apart from one another only to be joined at last in the company of the forever saints.

Here’s something else I know beyond any shadow of any doubt:

And I can only speak from my own experience….

But my darkest places come when I am not connected to others. I feel furthest from God when I fall out of community. When, for whatever reason, there’s a wedge in my relationship with others, I realize that I miss God’s work around me. I miss Jesus, sparkling on the mountain top. I miss the chariots of fire. I miss the Kingdom at work.

I know for sure that God loves us through the agency of one another.
When we are open and vulnerable enough to never leave each other’s sides.
No matter what. When we find it in our hearts to be honest—truly, blessedly honest—with one another. When our love for each other parts the Jordan River. When we care so deeply that we follow each other up mountains and through Jerusalem, just for the sake of being together.

Because life is short.
And we don’t have much time to gladden each other’s hearts.

It is our call to stick together. Through it all. Until we are parted by death. It is our call to be friends in community with one another so that we may, in turn, know all too well the indescribable, huge friendship of God.

How right and good it is that in a minute we will see a glimpse of God’s character through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is nothing more than our way of welcoming each other into the presence of community in the name of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today we will welcome these two little ones into the St. Anne’s Community. Blessed are they, and, because of them, blessed are we.

I love this place. This community shows me over and over again what it means to be in friendship with God through your friendships with one another. I see here a true community of people—you’re not always perfect, but more important than perfect, you are always, always together. If this is your first time here, we welcome you. And hear me say that you will find at here at this church a community of friends who pray together, serve together, read together, play together, cook together, love God together.

You bless me.

And you bless each other.

And I feel certain that God is smiling on you through the rays of sunlight jetting through these windows.

We are about to enter a Holy Lent. During this time we walk with our God to the cross where the skies part once again, and we see God’s Love, bigger than we could ever ask or imagine. Go there together. As long as you live, never leave each others’ sides, and believe me, you will know the power and love of God—as grand as chariots swooping down from the heavens.


25 December 2008

christmas eve, oh-eight.

Luke 2:1-20

The truth is that the service project with the junior highers was finished an hour earlier than I’d anticipated. I was in a pickle that every youth minister can relate to—how to kill time in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve one hundred rounds of foursquare (at best), a wrestling match, or mindless, reckless running down the halls under the guise of “hide & go seek.”

“Circle up!” I said. Eyes rolled.

We sat and I passed out note cards and my box of markers, and I just started asking fill-in-the-blank questions. I wasn’t sure yet what we’d do with the answers, but I figured I’d cross that bridge when we came to it…

“My favorite time of day is...” “I am happy when...” “I am sad when...”
And then I upped the ante: “I feel close to God ….”

“I feel close to God in church…
…when I pray
...when I visit my grandparents.”
…when I fail a test.”
…when I get hurt.”
…when I’m upset.”
…when I hear bad news.”
…when I’m in trouble.”
…when someone dies.”
…when everything around me is bad.”
“I feel close to God in the dark.”

I’m not sure what, if anything, I was expecting. But I do know that I was, as always with teenagers, surprised and delighted. They tapped into one of the great, beautiful paradoxes of our faith—that we believe that God is so good, so good, so good—AND—we believe that when things are so bad, so bad, so bad, that’s when we know that God’s shown up.

Over two thousand years ago, God showed up.

So, this Caesar Augustus guy decided to do a census. His power had gone straight to his head (it happens), and he wanted to know just how many peeps there were in the region so he could know just how much money he could collect that year in taxes.

This was a world ruled by the Roman Empire—5% of the people owned 95% of the land and resources. So, this census, frankly, was just rotten. An abuse of power.

You know the story—Luke tells it beautifully. Joseph is a good, honorable, very poor man. He’s not going to avoid the census, but he’s also not going to leave his pregnant girlfriend behind. So they saddle up on a donkey, and to Bethlehem they go. They don’t have anything. They are the poorest of the poor. But they care for each other. And for the miracle growing inside of her.

Well, of course they get 45 miles down the road—only half way there—when her water breaks. They veer off over there, a couple miles out of the way, where they know they’ve seen an inn before, but there’s no room (and even if there had been a room, there’s no guarantee they could afford it anyway). So, the keep going—almost there—when the wind picks up and it blows open a barn door just ahead. Shelter.

God shows up.

It was in that shelter—a dirty barn with dirty animals, hay for pillows, and stagnant water for relief—that Jesus Christ is born.

God shows up.

As a baby—a human baby—God shows up with nothing to speak of other than a couple teenagers—his mom and her very poor carpenter fiancĂ©.

In a world where the rich were really, really rich and really, really comfortable, and relatively speaking really, really healthy, God Showed Up In A Barn. Not a palace. Not a castle. Not a house. Not even a rural inn. A barn.

The New Order Has Arrived. And it doesn’t look anything like The Current Establishment.
The New Way, God’s Way shows up in the dark.
The New Way, God’s Way shows up among the poor and oppressed.
The New Way, God’s Way, the New Order meets us in the darkness.

This is Good News Indeed. God Showed Up among the Least of Us. The world has never seen anything like this before—power to the powerless.

+ + + + + +

It’s been one heck of a year, hasn’t it?

Terrorism hasn’t stopped. Remember what happened in India just last month?
We’re still at war.
Tornado season yielded nearly 60 deaths in the southern region of this country.
Gas prices are better now, but holy moley, that was a rough four months.
That tropical storm in Myanmar back in May killed over 133,000 people.
Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike killed hundreds and hundreds.
And then. September. Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy, and we knew we were in trouble, didn’t we?

This economic crisis is touching every single one of us.

Yeah, it’s no secret that we aren’t exactly living in The Best of Times. Even Buckhead, Georgia feels a hit, and we’re scared. Words like “bailout” and “recession” are common vernacular these days. Pfft. What a drag.

Never mind everything else.
Who have you grieved this year?
What are your losses?
How much of you is in the dark?

But there is Hope. Hope with a capital H.

Turns out that God’s All Time Favorites are those who are down and out. Eternal success isn’t measured in stocks or property, land or money. Eternal Life is something we all get, no matter what. And the people who know that best, the ones God is closest to, are the ones without. Obviously. Look where he was born.

The birth of Jesus Christ is Good News because in it lies our ultimate security. Hope that no matter how bad things get, we know that God showed up first in the dark.

I am not about to stand before you today to tell you that Everything Is Going To Be Okay. I am here to say that Everything IS Okay.

No matter what you’re going through.
No matter how hard it is.
No matter how thick the darkness.
You Are Okay.

And the darker it gets, the more likely you are to be present to God who—as it turns out—has been there the whole time.

Those middle schoolers that day, sitting in the circle. They hit God’s Great Truth out of the park...

The Truth is that God Loves You more than you could ever ask or imagine. Maybe you’re uncertain about that. Maybe you can’t feel it. But I have proof:

God Still Speaks. Maybe not audibly, like a voice from the heavens or a visitation by an angel—though I’m certainly not going to put it past God to appear to any of us in any way at any time. But tonight—right now—in the midst of the mystery and wonder of God’s Coming—God is speaking to through this most miraculous story. God is speaking in the story of a baby, born in a barn, who was sent to bring peace and comfort to our very affliction.

The story of God Born In A Barn has transcended time and it now gets to be ours.

Tonight. God has Shown Up for us. The Hope is tangible when we’re open and ready. And I believe we are. It’s been a long, cold Advent. We’ve waited with the patience and stillness of Mary. And now, tonight, God Has Come. And everything is Okay. God is with us—no matter what—and we couldn’t be better.

Can you feel the grip of baby’s hand around your finger? Is there anything better than that? “I’m here,” God is saying. “I’m not letting go.”

Sleep in heavenly peace.


23 November 2008

the feast of christ the king, year a

Matthew 25:31-46

Last week, the youth group played kickball with some folks from St. Bart’s. We were the hosts, so as the Chief Supporter of the youth around here, I took it as my job to split up the teams. Tasks like, oh, dividing up people for competitive sports give me flash backs to middle school gym and almost immediately make me feel nauseated. The number one thing I wanted to avoid was that awful Someone Picked Last thing, so I stressed till my stomach hurt, surveyed the group, and just went for it, spliting everyone down the middle, counting them off by two’s, and just prayed it would end up fair.

Okay, so seven minutes into the game it was obvious that it did not end up fair. Team Two was up, like, fifteen runs by the bottom of the second inning. But here’s the thing—It. Didn’t. Matter. Laura, to her credit, faithfully kept score, but within the blink of an eye, it was clear that everyone was playing for just the sake of playing. Then this Kingdom of God thing happened where players were cheering for their opponents, encouraging them to the bases, waving each other along, high-fiving, clapping. It was awesome.

This wild thing starts to happen when we make that internal shift into actually being in community. When we stop just going through the motions and with the help of a little dollup of synergy and a heaping tablespoon of the Holy Spirit, we slip seamlessly into living and being the Body of Christ. Can you feel it? We transcend all the cultural and temporal stuff and experience the tingly buzz of Christian Community… I can never pin-point the moment when it happens, all I know is that it does, and next thing I know kickball on the playground has turned into the Kingdom of God.

What happens when we find ourselves face to face with people who are differently able-d than us? Maybe they can’t kick a ball as well, or run as fast. Maybe simply putting one foot in front of the other is a challenge. Or maybe they live in a different part of town. Or maybe they speak differently or vote differently or have a different set of values. Or maybe their skin’s a different color or maybe they don’t have as much money as we do, or the choices we have. Or maybe they don’t have a roof over their head. Or maybe they can’t afford to eat. Whatever it is, it’s different, it’s Other than you. But something Gospel between you and them happens…There’s a shift and suddenly your “I” and “me” turns into an “us” and a “we” and you find that you are cheering each other on—encouraging, waving, high-fiving, clapping.

The only thing I can tell you about how this beautiful Kingdom thing happens is that we have to be open to it. We have to keep putting ourselves out there, ready to merge with those who are different. And next thing we’ll know it’s there…happening,

+ + + + + + + +

Oh, so….Happy New Year! Almost. New Years Eve, kinda. Today is the last Sunday After Pentecost. Next Sunday we’ll be in a whole new church year. It’ll be Advent, marking a Brand New Day.

In the church, we try to capture God’s time, the fullness of time, by beginning our church year before the birth of Jesus, before the beginning of our salvation. With Advent we practice the value of patience, the beauty of night, the Gospel of Wonder, Mystery, Almost. Christ the King is coming, and we must wait wait wait wait for it, stay awake, be ready. And when it comes, when our Christmas happens, there are no fireworks, there is no parade, there’s just a baby born into poverty somewhere outside of Nazareth in a little town called Bethlehem. That baby is our king—dirty diapers and all.

He’ll grow to be like his adoptive daddy—a carpenter, with callused hands and dirt behind his ears. He’s our king, but there’s nothing royal about him. He never dons a ring or a purple robe. He hangs out with the lost, the last, the least, and the lonely-- not the found, the first, the best, or the popular. And we know that Jesus may not have been lost or lonely, but he was certainly last and least.

And they called him king as they were putting him to death. It was a joke. They were mocking him.

What we hear in today’s Gospel comes before they put him to death—Jesus is preparing his disciples, giving them instructions about what it means to Live The Gospel Life. It's all about The Essentials. The “foundation of the world”—that’s where the Kingdom is found. Not in ability, skill, awards won, degrees earned, class, salary, status, or station in life. The Kingdom is rooted in nothing fancy—just food, water, warmth, and company.

For people like us who don’t want for the basics, the Kingdom Comes when we see that our salvation is tied inextricably to Those Who Have Not. And it’s not about how much we do or what we do or how often we find ourselves doing… Rather this Gospel Work is less doing and more disposition.

We’re really good at doing things here at Saint Anne’s. Good, Gospel Things. From Kids4Peace to our beautiful prayer shawl ministry, from sweating in the kitchen to sweating in Africa, we have no problem around here expressing outwardly the grace and blessedness that we feel on the inside from having a life in Christ.

AND. Though doing all of this goodness can’t hurt, though it’s certainly a part of Living the Christian Life, it’s not the only thing that makes us Kingdom People. Transformation into The Kingdom happens far more subtly, between moments, between kicks. Transformation into The Kingdom happens when we, like the righteous, don’t even know that we’re serving Christ. When we dwell in the disposition that put us in mutual, real relationship with every single person we encounter, no matter who they are. The Kingdom happens when we see The Face of God in One Another. It might just happen swiftly, with ease and without effort. Once you see it here where community is a given, you’ll see it everywhere—even where it’s hiding. You’ll see The Kingdom in the eyes of the least of these and in the eyes of the most of these and everywhere in between. Your eyes will focus in on the basics, the things we have in common, the things that make us One. And before you know it, The Kingdom Comes.


27 October 2008

proper 25, year a

Matthew 22:34-46

In today’s Gospel lesson, a lawyer-type Pharisee approaches Jesus with what he thinks is a trick question: “What’s the most important commandment in the law,” he asks. Keep in mind that this question about the law was coming from a lawyer. This smarty-pants knows the answer; he's just trying to stump Jesus. Because, in Jewish law, no one law is more important than the other. Dietary laws are as vital as cleanliness codes are as vital as laws regarding forgiveness. There is no one, single most important law.

Now, even though Jesus had every right to thumb his nose at Counselor Smarty Pants, of course he didn't. Jesus is not in the shaming business, and this day is no exception. Instead, Jesus suggests that the lawyer consider something totally different all together. Instead of narrowing it down to a single law, Jesus invites them to live differently. To lead with love instead of law.

Lead with love. Love God with all you’ve got. And love your neighbors. If you can do these things—and I believe you can—all of the other laws and commandments will flow like gravy.


Carrying groceries in New York City, in the snow, is never easy. One day I fell. One of those hard falls that they draw in cartoons— my feet slipped right out from under me, and I landed right on my tailbone. Of course, groceries were everywhere—I distinctly remember a jar of peanut butter rolling into the street—and I felt stuck. I had nineteen layers on underneath my full-length coat—upright, I looked like an up-turned sofa walking down the street. But lying there on the street I was momentarily helpless and undoubtedly pathetic. One man, an older gentleman with a cane, propped himself and his cane on a trashcan and offered me both of his hands. He helped me up.

When we were face to face, I thanked him profusely, and he put his hand on mine and said, “You’re welcome, Shelly.” And walked away.

(Who’s Shelly?)

I figured that I must have reminded him of his daughter or granddaughter. Someone he loves named Shelly. He helped me up like I was family.

And then like a flash, it occurred to me—wait. He could be flesh and blood. After all, I was adopted as an infant. It’s true that I’ve never been interested in finding my birth family, but that day on the street it occurred to me that anyone could be my biological family, technically. That day, dripping in street snow with a sore rump, I may have looked like a walking sofa, but I began to see strangers a little differently.

Never mind the mental stability of the human angel who propped his cane on a trash can to help a fallen woman in the snow. Never mind that there’s really no chance that he was my grandfather. The point is that he helped me that day, because he thought I was family. He didn’t pluck my hair for a DNA test before he helped me up. He just…did. He treated me, a complete stranger, with the care of grandfather.

I’m blessed to be adopted for hundreds of reasons. I’ve learned so many things through it. And that day on the sidewalk, I realized that we are all called to treat each other like flesh and blood. At the end of the day, who’s to say that the man with the cane isn’t my grandfather? Not me. And life is too short to hassle with the trifles of figuring that out in a moment of need.

In the 1st century, there really wasn’t such a thing as ‘self-love.’ No self-help books, no therapy, no such thing as an inner-child, no Dr. Phil. In the Bible, there is not even a glimmer of the notion for “self-esteem”. The concept of loving yourself before others was non-existent in the culture. So, when Jesus commands, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” most scholarship points to flesh and blood. Yourself as family. Love your neighbor the way you love your brother, your sister, your kiddos, your soulmate.

This is a massive call. The strange, the poor, the powerless, the deserted, the mean, the no good, the fallen in the snow—in the eyes of God, all one family. Think for a minute about the people in your world who are family—at its best, it doesn’t matter who they’re voting for, what they smell like, how much money they have, or even how kind or mean you’ve been to each other. At its best, family is like one never-ending Christmas dinner. One table, a lot of nourishment, and a ton of love, no matter what.

If we take this command seriously—to love EVERYONE like we love our family—we are forced into a new way of living. You’ll see the individuals in the world in a new light. Your money, your resources, your kindness will spread further and miraculously thicker. Your way of life will put God’s Love before everything else. A way of life that begs the question—Is Love The Bottom Line? If it is—you’re on the right track.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’"

That pretty much sums it up, right?

Just below the surface of these words is a mission to see things in a new way—a new way to navigate through this journey. It is a call to take a step back, to change our perspective, and to see that everything we do should be under the umbrella of God’s great mysterious love for us. And then we take all that God-given Love Stuff, and we spread it on thick to everyone, everywhere. Our brothers and sisters at God’s Table, God’s Family. We all, all, all get to be members.

Thanks be to God!

28 September 2008

proper 21, year a

Gospel Text: Matthew 21:23-32

When I was in the fourth grade I got a C in Mrs. Cheek’s Social Studies class. Now, to be fair, I’d had a nasty flu and was out of school for, like, two weeks. I’d fallen behind, and, as a result, earned my first C.

I knew it was coming for at least a week, but denial is a powerful force even for an 8-year-old. I can still feel the surprise drop in my stomach from the first sight of the grade. It was like a gaping wound on the carbon paper. The C was written in blue ink and perfectly centered in the box labeled “Social Studies”. Mrs. Cheek’s handwriting was beautiful—I’d been trying to mimic it for months—it was a font that’d I’d practice on the surface of all my folders. And that practice came in handy when—with a steady hand and an identical blue ink pen—I changed the grade. It wasn’t hard. I simply rounded out the corners of the C and added a line at it’s left side. Done. I went from “average” to “above average.” Just like that.

My parents totally fell for it. Of course they did. It was perfect. I got away with it, and was set. Everything’s gonna be alright.

Only, not so much.

I hardly slept for three solid weeks, and when I did it was restless and fraught with nightmares about getting caught. Finally, one night well after bedtime, I crept downstairs to where my parents were watching late night television, and I fessed up. I told the whole pathetic truth.

My parents listened carefully as I confessed my shame, my secret, my lie. It was late, and after I ran out of words and tears (I was terribly dramatic), I was unbearably exhausted. My father picked me up and carried me to bed where I slept like a baby. Seriously, it was the best sleep I’ve ever had. It was so good that now—22 years later—I can still remember the feeling I had when I woke up. I felt light and peaceful. Rest.

That morning, my parents told me that they loved me very much, that I was forgiven, that I needed to eat some breakfast and go to school. They decided not to punish me—it was clear that I punished myself enough. But I did have to come clean with Mrs. Cheek. They knew I could be brave enough to do it.

And, just like that, I was free.

At the age of 8, I started learning something very, very important—something I’m still sorting out: That no matter how shameful and painful and sinful and secretive it is, the truth will always, always set us free.

And the truth is that we’re all miserably flawed. We do things so full of shame and regret and pain that when it comes to confession, there’s not enough time in the world rattle off our sins, our grievances. Our secrets and our pain stretch out for miles. It's the way of the human condition.

And we coil up the miles and miles of our pain and sin. We wind it up tight and shove it into our souls like a tapeworm. In the still, small hours when we tap into our still, small voice, we can feel it, eating away at our lives. But most of the time, we hold our chins high and carry on.

Because we live in a society that honors bucking up. Chin up, move on. No time to be vulnerable. No time to come face to face with our flaws. Be put together. Be precise. Commit to as many things as you possibly can. Look busy. Be busy. And be really, really good at it. Get the highest grades. Go to the best colleges. Be on the faddiest of the fad diets. You must be gorgeous. Have gorgeous, well-behaved, perfect children. Have the best looking yard in the neighborhood. Nothing shall be out of place. Drive the right car. Marry the right person. Get it together, people. Strive for perfection.

(It is not possible. Is it?)

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

This Gospel lesson messes with our sensibilities. It’s calling us to a New Order where rotten people get into heaven first. It’s the prostitutes and the tax collectors who get to meet God. That hardly seems fair. After all, we’re trying really hard over here!

But listen carefully—the prostitutes and the tax collectors that Jesus is talking about aren’t run-of-the-mill sinners. They’re believers. The bought it. They got what John the Baptist was doing. They wanted it. They saw forgiveness, believed it was possible, and they wanted to be forgiven more than they wanted their lifestyle. They needed healing, forgiveness, and wholeness, just like we do, but they were not afraid to admit it.

It hurts to come face-to-face with all the wrongs we’ve done to each other and to ourselves. And we find ourselves in the back of the baptism-slash-forgiveness-slash-atonement-healing line, wearing the plastic-nose-and-fake-mustache glasses, hoping that God won’t recognize us when we confess. But God always does. And God will wait. God will wait for us to take off our masks and own our grief.

It’s so hard to be so vulnerable. I hate nothing more than feeling as though I’ve let someone down. I hate messing up. I hate what it feels like when I realize that I've wronged someone else--or even myself. It’s easier, it seems, to just pretend like it’s not there. To put my grief and my shame in a box on a shelf and leave it there. I've got a lot to lose. There's a long way to fall.

Maybe it seems easy for the prostitutes and the tax collectors…They don’t have much to lose, right? Everyone already hates them. But me? Us? We can’t be that bad. If we admit our sins we’re no better than they are, right?


The Good News is that we aren’t any better than anyone else. We stink. And God loves us anyway. And there is nothing in the whole world that compares to this kind of love. The kind of love that sees us as exactly who we are—warts and sin and shame—and loves us anyway. The kind of love that will blow secrets into oblivion. The kind of love that reveals the truth and forgives us over and over again…we’re forgiven a million times over for the things we have done, the things we have yet to do, and the things we’ve left undone.

The Good News is that—as hard as it may be—there is power in telling the truth. It’s got the force of a title wave and it will propel you to the front of the line. You’ll be in interesting company—honest people, truth tellers are a rarity—the new company you keep might seem a little bizarre. But it’s good. It’s the Truth. It’s the Kingdom. And, let me tell ya, you’ll sleep like an 8-year-old set free from the bonds of tiny secret, put to bed by her father, and forgiven for no other reason than the Love that Passes All Understanding.

Thanks be to God.

17 August 2008

proper 15, year a

Matthew 15:21-28

She was hysterical by choice. She knew that the only way to get this man’s attention was to pitch a controlled, calculated fit. She called him “Son of David” to appeal to his people and she raised her voice just enough to call attention to herself. Of course, because she was near the bottom of the cultural totem pole, she had no mess speaking to a man like Jesus in public, in the first place. But he was her last hope. And when a mother has hope, nothing can stop her.

“Keep going, keep going, keep going,” he told the disciples. “We have received our Operating Instructions. We are here for the people of Israel. We are not here to help Gentiles. Ignore her. Don’t make eye contact, look straight ahead, keep moving.”

Stopping to help this woman would do nothing for the mission as he understood it—He was to save his people. The Israelites. This woman and her sick child were Gentiles, not Jews. They were Canaanites, not Israelites. He could help her, but then he’d be getting off track. His time was limited.

The woman ran faster. At the front of the crowd, she caught up with Jesus and landed on her knees right in front of him. “Lord. Help. Me.”

“No. Helping you would be like helping a dog. We don’t have time,” he said.

To us, this hardly seems like Jesus’ finest hour. Even if, as some scholarship suggests, Jesus is testing the woman and the disciples…even IF Jesus knew exactly what he was doing here… he still just IGNORED a woman with a sick child because of her ethnicity and then he likened her to a dog.[i]

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus doesn’t do something divine here. We have to get through the tough parts first. Wait for it.

In the meantime, Mom is pushing back. Not out of disrespect—she just knows what she wants. The more face time she can get with this man, the more likely he will be able to see her as one worthy of God’s grace too. She argues with Jesus. She doesn’t just take what he has to say and accept it, she challenges him. She pushes him. She takes him by the shoulders and turns him around. She gets in there and wiggles and pushes and widens the boundaries: “Yes, but Jesus, even dogs get to eat.”

Like lightning, Truth and Compassion rippled through Jesus.

He Changed His Mind.

* * * * *

My friend Matthew was not a dog person. But when he and his wife came to town, they stayed at my house. And my Sally, my big brown Labrador, cozied right up to him. Sat on his feet, licked his ears, fell asleep with her head in his lap. The real moment of transformation came when we were in the backyard and Sal dropped the ball at his feet. When he threw it, she brought it back. They played fetch. An hour later, he was converted. He changed his mind.

Have you ever had a moment like that? You’d sworn off eggplant, but then you had it fried and smothered in cheese. Delicious. You weren’t a baby person… until you had one. You didn’t think you could wear orange until someone gave you an orange scarf.

Some sort of relationship with another human being is often at the heart of most transformation. . . We’ve all heard stories of acceptance—African American slaves who befriended their masters. Scared, concerned, freaked out parents who learn to love their gay children anyway. For crying out loud, there are people from my own life who, before I felt the call to ordained ministry, didn’t believe that a woman could possibly have anything to say from a pulpit. (Ha!)

Indeed, it is the power of relationship that blows open the doors to transformation.

The skies part,
the seas deepen,
the mountains grow.
and we see that our God is one
who colors outside the lines.

Thank God for the Canaanite woman, we’ll call her Grace. God sent her to his Son to show him that his mission was way bigger than even he could possibly imagine. Remember—Jesus was human, too. He had to figure all of this out somehow. Why not through the Canaanite woman?

The miracle of today’s Gospel lesson happens in two parts—the obvious part is when Jesus heals her daughter. But part one of the miracle happens just minutes before, when he listened to her. And only then did he have the strength and the courage to cast aside what he thought was right and opened himself up to the possibilities of God’s grace.

THAT is a man I will follow. Someone who learns and grows and is open to God’s movement in the world. Someone who has the courage to change his mind for the sake of Gospel Stuff: truth, justice, mercy, Love.

The human condition certainly has the potential to close our minds. But.
Thank God we were granted the ability to change.
Thank God that nothing other than God’s Love for us is set in stone.
Thank God that that Love is big enough to transform us.

And Jesus, in this story in particular, is beautiful example of that kind of transformation. Compassion and mercy trump his understanding of what he thinks is right. Truth errs on the side of grace, not on the side of rigidity. Truth always lands on Love’s side. And Love like this always wins.


[i] As always I remain forever indebted to Barbara Crafton & her Daily Emos from www.geraniumfarm.org. Also, while I’m footnoting, I’ll go ahead and give props to Sarah Dylan Breuer at http://www.sarahlaughed.net/. Her lectionary blog on this text confirmed my train of thought. +