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. +

27 July 2008

proper 12, year a

Gospel Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Thanks to some particularly human ill communication, the City of Atlanta turned off my water on Friday morning. I spent the better part of my afternoon waiting patiently at City Hall, unshowered, stinky, anxious, and irritated. Despite the fact that writing this sermon about the Kingdom of Heaven was on the very near horizon, I wasn’t really looking for sermon illustrations. I wasn’t in search of the Kingdom. But I was all too aware of how dirty my hair was.

As time ticked away at City Hall, I thought of the 20 people who were to arrive for a midsummer night’s potluck in my backyard. At this point, they could come, but they might not be able to flush. They could come, but, unless I used Francie’s hose, they’d be eating dirty vegetables. Eventually, it became clear that I had to cancel the whole shebang. So, I broke the strict no cell phone policy of the Atlanta Waterworks waiting room, and sent out a massive text message to my brothers, my friends, and a couple of acquaintances.

Soon thereafter, because I showed up with a checkbook and a lot of charm, it was arranged that my water would be turned back on within eight hours. I was at once relieved and aggravated, sad but Okay.

When I got home, I fired up my computer to send out a back up email to my friends, making 100% sure that they knew that the potluck as a no-go. I covered my bases, walked my dogs, filled their bowls with water from a jug, and went to a friend’s house to wash up. It was all I could do.

I returned home close to 8 o’clock, a full hour after the potluck was supposed to start. Standing in my kitchen, I chose tortilla chips for dinner, and just as I reached for the bag, there was a knock at the door. Jill. Sweet Jill hadn’t gotten the message, and there she was wearing a straw hat and holding a warm pie.

The kingdom of heaven is like an old friend baking a pie on what was a miserable, useless, upsetting day. The kingdom of heaven is a surprise. It is unexpected and it is delicious. The kingdom of heaven might look small, but when you see it through Kingdom Lenses, it is huge and warm, made with butter and home-grown blueberries.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is not at a loss for words. He’s talking about seeds and yeast and farming and pearls. Regular things made holy. The simple, ordinary, day-to-day stuff is seen as God Stuff. Holy Stuff. Kingdom Stuff.

And he keeps going and going and going. His teaching is like a teacup under a waterfall—maybe he’s working on the theory that the more metaphors he passes out the more likely one will stick to someone’s ribs. (As a preacher, I can appreciate this approach.)

As for us, the parables of Jesus have given us Bible geeks plenty of fodder for interpretation. Because they’re parables, they get to have more than one meaning. They get to say different things to different people. They have enough room in them to breathe; there are enough spaces in the stories for the Holy Spirit to move and wiggle in the hearts of each one of us…

Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. That’s enough to make bread for hundreds. Bread for many. That’s the kingdom of heaven.

Or this: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. A teeny, tiny mustard seed that grew into a massive, mighty tree.

Isn’t that beautiful? Something so small and so inconsequential grows into something big and nourishing. Something so small grows to be a home for the birds of the air.

Or this: the Kingdom of Heaven is the one pearl among the rest that is worth more than all the others put together.

The Kingdom of Heaven is about abundance in the least expected places.
The hopeless kid, the rescued puppy, the tiny, the small, the seemingly useless, unsuccessful, embarrassing and lost.

The Kingdom of Heaven takes the small,
insignificant, day-to-day stuff of our lives and
makes. them. holy.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like combining ordinary baking soda and vinegar.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like squeezing an ordinary blade of grass between your thumbs and making a whistle.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like the net thrown into the sea—it pulls up fish of every kind, along with all the other slimy messy stuff of the sea. The Kingdom of Heaven is what’s left after the slimy mess has been thrown out. The kingdom is about sorting out what we can keep and what we can throw out. What actually has value..

The Kingdom of Heaven is the goodness we find when our eyes are open and are hearts are receptive to God’s movement in the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is found in the Regular Things like baking bread and taking a walk.

The mysterious workings of God in our ordinary world.

Treasures in ordinary life.

The Kingdom of Heaven is as accessible and good as an old friend showing up unexpectedly with simple love and delicious pie.

Open your hearts and minds and eyes. Be alert. The Kingdom of Heaven is everywhere.

08 June 2008

proper 5, year a

Gospel text: Matthew 9: 9-13; 18-26

She walks in a massive loop through central and northern Wilmington. She starts on a commercial four-lane highway called Concord Pike up there by the movie theatre, and walks south about five miles. She crosses westward and hits N. DuPont Street, walks right in front of the house where I used to live, and then turns right onto Pennsylvania Avenue and heads north eight or so miles. She turns right, cuts back over to the movie theatre, and starts all over.

On her wrists she carries plastic grocery sacks. They look heavy and weighted down. She’s wearing a white sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, and her salt and pepper hair hangs down past her shoulders. Her shoes are wrapped in duct tape.

I lived in Delaware for over two years and she walked by my house every Wednesday night between 6:45 and 7:00. Next to my dog, she was the most reliable, consistent presence in my life. And I never even saw her.

I mean, I saw her, but I didn’t really see her, you know? Clearly, I have a visual of her in my head. If I were a painter, I would have shown you this woman in shades of black and gray and white. If I had had more time, I would have made a map of Wilmington, Delaware, charting her course in thick red line, and I can do that, because I drove around a lot and always saw her walking in the same direction, on the same roads.

But I never really, really saw her. I was never moved by her. I never wondered about her or cried over her or laughed at her. I never talked about her. I never asked about her. No one speaks of her. She’s just there. Solid as a rock. Steady as she goes. Walking round and round and round. Roaming in a vicious cycle. Invisible.

Another woman, years and years ago, circled her town. By day, she had to stay inside, but at night she craved air, so she took to the streets of Nazareth and walked and walked until the sun came up. We heard about her briefly in today’s Gospel lesson—she was sick. Bleeding constantly. Unclean and isolated from society. We don’t know her name, but we do know that one day she was brave enough to leave her home before the sun went down. She heard that this man called Jesus had arrived. She heard that he performed miracles. She hoped—just hoped—that he’d fix her, make her whole.

Of course she was frightened. The law said that she shouldn’t be in public. The law forbade her from having any contact with anyone. She was sure that she wouldn’t make it ten feet out of her front door before she was shooed away like an unwanted fly at a picnic. She was just so sure that she’d be booed at or shunned or arrested. But the promise of this Jesus man was worth it, she thought, so she left.

Much to her surprise, she made it all the way into town. She passed the kids over there, the women drawing water from the well over there, the men hauling grains over there. Making sure that she touched no one, she squeezed her way through a crowd at the market. All of this freedom, yet she didn’t feel liberated. She felt irrelevant. She felt invisible.

* * * * * * * *

One of my favorite icebreaker questions is this: If you could have any super-power, what would it be? Lots of people say “invisibility.” I wonder what’s so great about it.

Have you ever sat in a restaurant for what feels like HOURS before the server comes over? And even then, when she does make it over, she just throws some coasters on your table and leaves? I hate that.

Or have you ever been in a room full of people who all know each other, but you know none of them? Maybe they haven’t seen each other since college, so they’re all catching up and carrying on and you’re just sitting there. Maybe you chime in every once in a while, but what you say is brushed off. No one has looked at you in an hour.

Or worse yet. Have you ever really, really wanted to belong, but for some awful reason—maybe they don’t like your laugh or maybe you’re not pretty enough or maybe you speak differently or maybe you don’t go to the right school or maybe you don’t dress a certain way—but whatever the reason, you can’t get in. You’re not worth it. You’re irrelevant to them. You might as well be invisible.

The bleeding woman in Nazareth might as well have been invisible. She was so other, so different, so unwelcome that no one even saw her anymore.

Finally, she reached a swarm of people and she just knew that Jesus was at the center. She heard a voice from the crowd teaching. That must be him. She listened as he said words that gave her faith: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Words of hope, indeed. Could it be that nothing would be asked of her? Could it be that she could be healed on the merits of love, of mercy? She had to see for herself.

Gently, she moved through the crowd, careful not to touch anyone, careful not to draw attention to herself. She got down low and weaved her way among the legs of the people until she reached his heals. There she was. Face to face with the backs of Jesus Christ’s feet. She couldn’t help it—she couldn’t resist—she held her breath, reached out and ever so slightly touched the hem of his cloak. She exhaled. For the first time in years she felt alive. The feel of someone else—even just someone else’s clothing—human contact, however slight—filled her with the promise of life again.

At that very moment, Jesus felt the breath of the Holy Spirit ripple through his body. He turned around, knelt on the ground, looked her in the eye, and declared her whole. In the name of mercy. In the name of faith. In the name of love.

Jesus meets us where we are. Alone in the restaurant, invisible. Alone in a room full of people, invisible. Left out, invisible. Full of sin, invisible. Bleeding, sick, invisible. Jesus finds you. And as soon as you take the leap—as soon as you reach out—as soon as you let faith take you by the hand and lead you to the hem of his cloak—he heals you. He kneels on the ground, looks you in the eye, he touches your face, and says, “I see you. I love you. Be well.”

20 April 2008

the 5th sunday of easter, year a

Saint Anne's, Atlanta
Gospel Text: John 14:1-14

My big red suitcase was packed and tagged, and I had a one-way ticket to New York City waiting for me on the fridge. The next morning, I was going to seminary.

That night, I decided to take my Volkswagen out for our swan song. I was about to leave her for the subways and sidewalks of New York City, and, let me tell you, it was a sad break-up for me. I took her to Stone Mountain Park and we drove around the mountain for at least an hour. Round and round I drove that car and round and round went my thoughts, and next thing I knew I was in tears. What am I thinking? New York? Really? Seminary? Really? Whatever. I’m not going. I’m going to call Rob Nash.

Some of y’all have heard me talk about ole Rob before. A college professor, Baptist pastor, missionary, dear friend and mentor to me. He answered the phone, “Hello?”

“Hey, Dr. Nash. It’s Wendy. I’m not going to seminary tomorrow. Ever. No way.”

There was a five-second-feels-like-five-hours-long pause before he cut it with his signature belly laugh.

“Porter,” he said.


“LEAP,” he said.



“Leap? Rob, really. Leap where?”

“Just LEAP, Porter. LEAP.”

* * * * * *

Today’s Gospel lesson launches us into a story that takes place before the crucifixion, before the resurrection, before Easter. Jesus is in the midst of saying goodbye to his friends. He has predicted his imminent betrayal and death, and he’s trying his best to give them some peace, some comfort, and a little bit of instruction.

This scene comes immediately after Jesus hands them the new commandment: Love one another. Big time. He tells them to love each other the way he’s loved them—and that Love is huge and radical and boundary-breaking. It crosses every line, every norm, every standard. Jesus has just told them to love, love, love.

Then he’s all like, “Okay. See ya later.”

You can imagine the waves of fear that shook those disciples. He’s given them this huge, radical commandment—one that they can’t imagine living out with him around to help—and then tells them that they have to do it on their own. They’re scared.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says to them. “I’ll come back, dudes. No worries. And I will take you to where I am going so that where I am, there you will be also. Besides, you totally know the way.”

Well, leave it to Thomas to chime in.

Thomas gets a bad rap. They call him “doubting” and he carries the unfortunate reputation of being the disciple that doesn’t trust, doesn’t let go, doesn’t believe. But he’s indispensable. We need Thomas to name what’s actually going on with the disciples. He doesn’t mince words, he tells the truth. And because of his openness, Jesus gets the opportunity to clarify, to teach, and to proclaim even more than before.

“Lord,” says Thomas, “we don’t know where you’re going. How can we possibly know the way?” The subtext here isn’t hard to find: Jesus, man, we’re scared. Don’t leave us.

And Jesus’ answer is remarkably simple: “I am the way.”

Relax, Jesus is saying. Do not be troubled. Stop freaking out.

* * * * *

Four years before I went to seminary, four years before Rob Nash laughed and told me to LEAP, I was babysitting his kids. As I was tucking the 11-year-old Lindsay into bed she casually asked what I wanted to do when I graduated from college.

“Well, I might go to seminary.” I cringed when I said it.

“Why did you make that face?” she asked.

“It’s kind of a big commitment, Linds. It seems pretty scary to me.”

And then—y’all I’m not making this up—she placed her hand on my cheek and said, “Wendy, fear is not from God.”

And, you know what? That eleven-year-old was totally right. There’s a proverb or something that even says it: Perfect Love Casts Out Fear. And today’s Gospel lesson taps into that very truth. When Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “I am the way. I am truth. I am life,” he is handing them a piece of themselves that they already know. “Trust yourselves a little more,” he’s saying. “You’ve got Love on your side. You’re going to be great. Greater than you can imagine. You will carry on without me. Feel the Love and Let Go. Leap.”

“What’s more,” says Jesus, “you know God. That’s why you’re going to be great. Because you know me you know God.”
This is Gospel. This is Good News. You know God. Because the Spirit dwells in you, because you devote yourself to Jesus, you get to know God. I can’t think of a greater motivator, a greater source of fuel, a greater reason to get up in the morning and go.

Can you see? Can you turn on your mind’s eye and see God inside of you? Can you feel this Good News? You don’t need to be shown the way to God because you’ve already got it. Right here, in your heart, in your gut, in your mind. God’s there. God is yours and you are God’s.

And now for the scary vulnerable work…

Not only are we called to see the face of God in the mirror. We are being called to see the face of God in each other. We are called to take a step forward and look into each other’s eyes. Get close enough to smell the sweat and the dirt. Nose-to-nose. See God in each other.

In a minute you are going to renew your Baptismal Covenant. Listen to what is asked of you: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love your neighbors as you love yourselves, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being.

The work I’m talking about here is big. This Baptismal Covenant is at the heart of what it means walk the way, live the truth, be the life of God.

The common denominator,
the thread that runs through every soul,
the truth of God,
is the truth that
we were all created in God’s image.

And we Christians are called to seek that common denominator,
and when we tap into that denominator,
when we are at our best,
when we are living out that Baptismal Covenant,
when we have our thumbs on the heartbeat of humanity…
that’s when we find ourselves in the throes of God’s call for us.

So, you gotta trust Jesus on this one. You gotta believe—really believe—that you know God because you know Jesus. You gotta believe—really believe—that, even though it might not always be clear, you know the way. The way that points us to the radical, boundary-breaking Love of Jesus Christ.

When you recommit yourselves to Christ in a minute, pay attention. And when you answer that you “will with God’s help”, really say it.

Take the Leap.

21 March 2008

Good Friday, 2008

Goodbye. Goodbye Love. Goodbye Friend. Goodbye Jesus.

Goodbye is such a loaded word, but that doesn't keep us from saying it all the time. Sometimes sad, sometimes hopeful. Sometimes pained and sometimes necessary. Sometimes we say it just to be polite, but sometimes it’s heavy and cloaked in finality. Sometimes we avoid it all together. The word comes from the Old English term “God be with ye.” God be with you. A lovely way to send someone off… “Go with God.” Over time, “God-be-with-ye” morphed into g-o-o-d-b-y-e.

Same sort of thing happened with the term Good Friday. The Old English possessive word for God is godes and today was called “Godes Friday.” It kinda morphed along the same path as “goodbye”, and so eventually, “God’s Friday” became “Good Friday.”

I know that when I learned this little tidbit I was relieved. It’s nice to know that there isn’t a Religious Holiday Naming Committee out there who thought it’d be jaunty and fun to call the execution of our Lord good. The point is that this day belongs to God. And though we believe that God is so, so good, we also know that putting God to death isn’t so great.

..…Don’t you think it should be raining outside? Let’s just go back to bed. Sleep through this dark, damp, sad day. Stay in. Make some tea. Hibernate. Let’s just close our eyes and dream today away. A cup of tea and a nap seems nicer than living out this story. The man we love, the One who has made us whole and healed, is hanging from a cross and dying a horrible death, and the pain that he is in right now is too much. We cannot bear it. It cannot be good.

And yet. This moment, this pain, this tragedy that we can’t even begin to bear…This Friday is the essential ingredient to the Gospel. It is The Good News.

It might not immediately resonate with you if you’re like me—privileged and healthy. But the extreme, profound suffering of Christ does resonate to the core with so many. Today is the day that the people in the world who are most marginalized, the people in the world who seem to have no hope, those who have suffered more than we can ever, ever imagine… Today is the day that they—you—we—all of Creation—gets to step into God’s Grace.

God doesn’t exist contrary to the suffering of the world, nor does God exist parallel to it; rather God exists in the darkness of the world. Right now, hanging from that cross, God is piercing the darkness of the whole world.

God is with refugees and orphans, with victims of violent crimes, with those who live in the fear of occupied territories. God is there. God has not ordained the most heinous disasters—God is suffering through them. God is there. There is a worldwide poverty crisis, and God is in the middle of it. Weeping, too. Hate crimes, terrorism, tornado disasters, massive fires, every war in history, the current war, wars to come, the AIDS crisis. God is there. Suffering. Every child who dies, every divorce, every grief, every trouble. God is there. Every playground where the skinny kid is beaten bloody, every ounce of depression, every single cancer cell, every hint of insecurity, every bit of doubt, every morsel of self-loathing. God is there. Are you Lonely? Empty? Dark? Lost? God is there. Holding your hand. Dying with you. Dying for you.

And this death, this execution, is not just for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. Jesus is hanging on the cross for the oppressors, too. For the very people who commit violence against him, Jesus is dying. Jesus is dying for the people who do us wrong and cause us pain, and Jesus is dying for the people we hate, and Jesus is dying for your worst enemy. Jesus is dying for us even though we aren’t exactly saints, either. No one—no one!—gets to be exempt from the Love of that man hanging on the cross. Everyone gets salvation.

So, here we are. Exposed. Mortal, vulnerable, pained, human. We are standing at the foot of the cross, and we have to say goodbye to our Jesus for now. The One who loves us to death is dying to save us. We can’t fix a pot of tea and pretend like this isn’t happening.

So, behold it. Behold this moment. Behold this death. Look into its eyes. You have never seen Love like this before.

02 March 2008

the 4th sunday in lent, year a

Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta GA
Gospel Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t think the blind man in today’s Gospel lesson moved very much. He was a beggar who couldn’t see, so he probably just did a lot of sitting while other, better-abled people did the moving. He was a fixture in the lives of the people in the same way that I can’t hear the grandfather clock in my parent’s house anymore. Sometimes we just get so used to something, some noise, some sight, that it simply seems to disappear.

Every morning the women walked by him to fetch the day’s water. Every afternoon the Pharisees walked by him on their way to temple for midday prayers. Every evening, as it was getting dark, children raced past him to make it home in time for dinner. Once every couple days, someone might drop a coin or a crumb in his general vicinity. He adds it to his cup. And that is the closest thing to attention the blind man ever gets. For all intents and purposes, he is invisible.

For the people of Jesus’ time, blindness was far more than a physical condition. For the folks in first-century Mesopotamia, blindness was a result of sin, of poor living, of being outside of God’s favor. More than being simply unable to see, blind folks were considered to be full of darkness. [i]

The people thought of light as a substance, as something you either have or have not. If your body has light in it, then your eyes work. It’s almost as if your eyes are the things that shed light into the world. Sight comes from the inside out. Light is present in the human body, and when it flows from a person’s eyeballs it allows them to see. If someone is blind, if they cannot see, their body has darkness instead of light. [ii]

So, our blind man was a bone fide, big fat, full-of-sin-and-darkness nobody. He was nothing more than the requisite beggar taking his place on the curb, sitting there to make us feel better about ourselves, placed there to give our egos a boost, hanging out with nothing more than his coin cup and his walking stick, to remind us that we have everything and he has nothing. Who would we be if we didn’t have that blind beggar to complete the social circle?

Enter Jesus.

He and his disciples are on a walk on the Sabbath. It’s a day of rest, so there is not to be any business at all. They’re just on a simple, Saturday stroll when Jesus sees the blind man. His disciples see him, too…See how when you hang out with Jesus your perspective starts to change? See how suddenly the disciples start picking up on things that they might have otherwise ignored? “Jesus?” they asked. “What did this man do to be born this way?” “Nothing,” he says. He makes mud, rubs it on the man’s eyes, sends him to take a bath, and he comes back with sight.

It is unclear to us where Jesus went for the next 26 verses of scripture. What is clear that for the better part of the story chaos swirls around the healed man. People begin to see him. People begin to give him attention. The neighbors of the town and the Pharisees are divided over the details of the miracle, and the once-blind man is forced to defend the whole thing. There’s almost a steady refrain in the story, isn’t there? “I was blind. Now I’m not.” Over and over again. “Who? What? How?” They ask. “Jesus. Healed me. With Mud.” Over and over again.

The people just can’t seem to understand how a miracle could have happened to a darkness-filled sinner. The people just won’t accept that this kind of miracle-work can happen on the Sabbath. This healing is breaking rules, and therefore it must be wrong somehow.

My favorite line in the story is: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…”[iii] It’s almost as though he’s saying, “HELLO! DUH! What’s so difficult about this? Just because something happened outside of your realm of possibility doesn’t mean that it’s not possible! Abandon the trifles, unhook yourself from your way of doing things, and open YOUR eyes! God is among us. See the miracle.”

In Churchworld, we can get pretty wrapped up in this kinda stuff, huh? We tend to get caught in the rules and traditions and the way we think things should be. We want the best programs, the best preaching, the best Sunday school, and we all have an opinion about what that looks like. We go around and around about buildings and committees and budgets. And it’s not that all of these things aren’t important—They Are! But.

Sometimes in a system like the church, we aren’t very gentle with ourselves. We want things done our way or no way at all. When something different happens…when someone comes along with a different style, with a different way of looking at the truth…When the rules as we know them are confronted… When the protocol or norm is challenged… When our traditions are questioned… We get uncomfortable, squeamish, and sometimes we hedge out the possibility of the Gospel. When we get tunnel vision, we might as well close our eyes all together. We can’t see God’s movement in the world.

It’s easy, too easy, to forget the big picture. It’s our mission to seek and serve Christ in all persons. What are the real ingredients? What are the real rules? Justice. Mercy. Grace. Hospitality. Stewardship. Feeding people. Love. The Gospel is not made of protocol, trifles, or even logic. The Gospel does not hinge on one way of doing things. No, the Gospel is cloaked in the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. He hasn’t just come to brighten things up. He has come to give us sight. He has come to dwell in us so that we might see, so that we might illumine the earth with the truth of Love.

I believe that when we are brave enough to step outside of lines, to think outside of the box, to resist the tail-chasing, to question the rules…When we have the courage to let go of the emotional tornado that we attach to doing things the right way…When we take a deep breath and start living into the Grace of God… When we are gentle with ourselves and with others…Our eyes open, and we are filled with Light. Our eyes open and we start seeing God’s work in the most unexpected places. And then? Miracles happen.

[i] Props to Sarah Dylan Breuer for this insight. Second-handed props to the Social Science Commentary on John where she got the insight in the first place!
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] As always, kudos to the ever-genius Barbara Crafton for today’s e-mo.