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We had another long lesson from John’s Gospel this Sunday (Chapter 11 this time on Lazarus).  Here’s my sermon….

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Lent 5A — John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words of greeting from Martha to Jesus always sound somewhat judgmental and accusatory to my ears. “Lord, if you hadn’t taken too long, if you had come when we asked you to, if you had made us your priority, my brother would still be here among us, still be eating meals with us. If you had acted, Jesus, things would have turned out differently.”

It’s a lament. A feeling that those of us who have experienced great loss or trauma know only too well. “Jesus, if you had acted, things would have been so different for me in my life.” But you didn’t act, Jesus. You didn’t come. You didn’t answer my call, my prayer. And now look what has happened.

Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and she’s thinking at the end of the age.

And then Mary comes out to meet Jesus, and says the same exact thing. Jesus is so overcome with grief for his friend, he begins to weep. Others also join in on questioning Jesus. “If he could open the eyes of the blind man, surely he could have healed Lazarus and avoided this turmoil.

As he comes to the tomb, Jesus sees that there is a stone covering the cave. “Take away the stone,” he tells them. And Martha says, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, since he’s been dead four days already.” Lord, he’s dead and gone, why do you want to roll back the stone?

He simply responds, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory?” and they roll away the stone, and Jesus prays and then says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And then the formerly dead man comes out, still bound up in the cloths they had covered his body with a few days before. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells them. They do. And Lazarus is rejoined with his sisters and his friends and I can’t even begin to imagine the celebration they have that night with all the casseroles and comfort food that people had brought over to Mary and Martha’s house.

What I cannot help but wonder is how many times we say this to Jesus ourselves. “Lord, if you had been present, this wouldn’t have happened.” If you had acted the way I wanted you to, I wouldn’t have experienced the pain, Lord. Jesus, when I called for you, you lingered and stayed away, but I needed you. If you had come, my daughter might not have suffered like she did, my father might not have died, I might not have been traumatized by that abuse. Jesus, if you had acted, I wouldn’t have lost my job, or watched my marriage crumble, or born the hardship of that miscarriage. Jesus, if you had come when I asked I might not have become addicted, or had that affair. Jesus, you just didn’t come.

And Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and we go the same route as Martha, thinking Jesus is talking about the great hereafter and not about the here and now. And Jesus makes his way to the place where that pain is buried, where the hurt lies deep inside us, still covered, still walled off by that stone we put there long ago. “Take away the stone,” he says.

“Lord, you don’t understand; it’s been years since this happened, and the stench is overwhelming. That part of my life has been long since buried and hidden, it has long since died. It’s too far gone. There’s no use. The stink is putrid. Don’t, Lord, don’t open up that place.”

“If you believe,” he says, “you will see the glory of God.”

And there it is. I’ve only been here a few months, and I’ve heard a few stories about the places deep within a few of you that are causing immense pain. I know without a doubt there are more stories out there. Those of you in this place who were abused as a child. Those who have faced or are facing immense pain in your marriages. Those who have had a loved one taken much too soon. Those who have suffered unimaginable harm in ways known to you alone. And those experiences, that hurt, that piece of you that died on that day, has been carefully wrapped up and placed in that tomb. The rock has been rolled in front of it, and you figured it was gone forever.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus says to us this morning.

He says this because he wants to bring healing. Jesus wants to bring life. Resurrection. Restoration. Renewal. Jesus wants to take the hurt away.

You see, for whatever reason, Jesus didn’t seem present on that day when we thought we needed him. But he’s here now. He’s present. And he wants us to move the stone so he can act.

Moving that stone means becoming vulnerable. It means opening ourselves up to the power of Christ. It means talking about something that was buried long ago so that we can experience the transformative power of Jesus.

Lazuarus, come out!

“Come out!” he says to us. Come experience the healing and life I have for you. Come and be healed. Come out, and live.

Will we remove the stone and open ourselves up to his healing? Will we trust that while the stench may be overpowering, that he can bring about new life? Will we hear his call when he tells us to come out of the grave that we’ve been in for so long? Will we allow ourselves to struggle out of the tomb, making our way as best we can with the cloths so tightly wound around us?

He desires this for us. And he longs to say, “Unbind them, and let them go.” Amen.

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Rather than using the Bible as a tool or a place to go to get answers, one of the best things to do with this holy Word of God is to pray with it.  The most common way of doing this is called Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading.”  If you give yourself a good 20 minutes to half hour or more, this can be a very rewarding practice.  I’ll give some details below.

Lectio allows us to really have God’s word get deep within us.  It opens us up to the Holy Spirit leading us to new understandings about Scripture and to move within us.

And what it does most of all is open us to hear God’s words to us fresh without bringing our own agendas and understanding to a text.  By slowing down and listening, we begin to see things that we might not have noticed before in a passage.

There are four stages to Lectio.  To that end, I’ve copied the following from another site (the United Church of Christ website), but I thought it was a great reference to describe the four stages.

In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo described four stages in the practice of Lectio Divina.

Lectio (reading)
Read the Word of God slowly and reflectively. Any text from the Bible can be used for this purpose, but the reading should not be too long.

Meditatio (reflection)
Think quietly about the text you read it. You can read the text many times to let the words sink into your mind and heart.

Oratio (response)
Leave your thinking aside and simply let your heart speak to God.

Contemplatio (rest)
Let go of your own ideas and plans. And you can go deeper: let go of your holy words and thoughts. Simply rest in the Word of God. Listen at the deepest level to God who speaks within you with a still, small voice.

So if you read the story of Jesus calming the sea, see Mark 4:35-41, you may after reading begin to reflect on the phrase “Peace! Be still!”  Soon your reflection on that phrase (which may last for a number of minutes with you simply saying every so often that phrase again and again) may lead you to speak to God about the storms in your own life and the longing you have for Jesus to speak those words to your storms (This would be Oratio).  Then, after some time, try to release your desires to God and open yourself up to what God may be saying to you in the midst of this.

This takes practice, and you may get frustrated that you “can’t do it right.”  You’ll be relieved to hear there is no rights way.  And, more importantly, that we are all beginners.  Sometimes this will go very well and feel very fruitful in our lives.  And other times, not so much, and we might feel discouraged because we aren’t connecting with God.

This isn’t a simple formula, but rather an invitation to spend time with God.  As you mull Scripture over in your head, it gets inside of you, shaping you into more and more the person Christ is calling you to be.  In this way, you’re able then to draw closer to God and to recognize that God desires relationship with us, and desires us to be in relationship both with others and God.

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I love baseball, and will be making sure I see the Sox play tomorrow in Texas (as the snow/wintry mix come down here in Mass.)  A friend recently shared this, and I got a kick out of it.  There’s a lot of history and truth buried in these quick witty sayings.  I hope you enjoy them as the Boys of Summer start their year!

And Go Sox!

 

Religion as Baseball

Calvinists believe the game is fixed.

Lutherans believe they can’t win, but trust the Scorekeeper.

Quakers won’t swing.

Unitarians can catch anything.

Amish walk a lot.

Pagans sacrifice.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are thrown out often.

Televangelists get caught stealing.

Episcopalians pass the plate.

Fundamentalists balk.

Adventists have a seventh-inning stretch.

Atheists refuse to have an Umpire.

Baptists want to play hardball.

Premillenialists expect the game to be called soon on account of darkness.

The Pope claims he never made an error.

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Great story this week from John’s Gospel on the Woman at the Well (John 4).  It’s such a great passage and offers up so many angles as to how to approach it.  And the irony of John is getting thicker (reaching a high point next week when we hear about the man born blind).  So here it is, my sermon from yesterday.

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Lent 3A—John 4:5-42

There’s a cartoon of two people dragging themselves across the sands of a desert.  It’s a man and a women, their clothes in tatters.  You can see that they have been at this for days, they’re dying of thirst and there is no end in sight.  As they slither like snakes, the woman looks at the man and says something to him.  The caption deadpans, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get all frizzy.”

We didn’t hear the beginning of this story from John’s Gospel this morning, so let me give you the context.  We’re told that word had gotten to the Pharisees about Jesus and his ministry, and so he decides to head back north to Galilee from Jerusalem.  And, John writes, he had to go through Samaria.  Except what we’re not told is that most times Jews would head the other way; rather than going west and traveling through Samaria, they’d head east to avoid the area all together.  They did this even though it meant traveling for a longer period of time; going through Samaria was more direct.  But Jews hated Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual.

But something is up.  Jesus had to go through Samaria, John writes.  And as he journeys north, one day it gets hot, and it’s about lunch time.  So the disciples head into town to rustle up some food, and Jesus takes a seat by the well which sits outside the town.  As he catches his breath, a Samaritan woman comes up to draw some water.  He’s thirsty, so he asks her for a drink.

We aren’t told much about this woman by John.  We aren’t given her name.  We suspect that she’s an outcast; women normally come in the morning and evening to get water, avoiding the hot part of the day.  There had to be a reason she came at noon when the sun was blistering.  She’s a Samaritan, a half Jew.  She is, for all intents and purposes, a nobody.

But she gets it, this nameless woman.  “Why is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”  In her head she must be also asking, why is he talking to me?  Doesn’t he know that I’m an outcast?

But Jesus doesn’t care.  He’s thirsty.  He asks her for a drink.  Which is pretty remarkable when you think about it.  Jesus is asking for a drink.  I cannot help but think of his words in Matthew’s gospel about the sheep and the goats.  He tells the sheep that they can enter into the Kingdom because of the things they did for him.  “When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink,” he says.  They ask him when they did this, and he replies, “Whenever you did it it to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”  So here is Jesus, sitting by this well, asking for a drink.  He’s giving her a chance to see the one ignored—in this case a nameless Jewish man—and offer a cup of cold water.  Before he teaches her about living water, he creates an opportunity for her to do kingdom work.

Instead, she starts putting up road blocks.  She starts with that whole, “I’m a Samaritan, you’re a Jew, you know we can’t get along” speech.  Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was, she’d be dying to ask him for a drink.  She can’t believe it, since Jesus doesn’t have a bucket and the water was a long way down.  “You’re not greater than Jacob, are you?” she asks, expecting Jesus to say no, and pulling out the family heritage.

Instead of talking genealogies, Jesus talks about spiritual water, and how the water that he offers would gush in them offering eternal life and they would never be thirsty again.  She doesn’t understand that he’s not talking about the same kind of water she is, and says she wants this water so she doesn’t have to come back day after day with her bucket.

He then tells her to go get her husband and then come back to him.  She answers, “I’m not married.”  Jesus tells her that she’s right, but that she’s been married five other times, and that the guy she’s with now isn’t technically her husband.  And with that, the cat is out of the bag.  I suspect she feels dejected, and thinking that the whole reason she came to the well at mid-day was to avoid these kinds of conversations.

“Sir, I can see that you’re a prophet,” she says to Jesus.  And then she puts up another wall, bringing up the topic of religion and where the proper place to worship is, either on the mountain where they were at or back in Jerusalem.  She thinks she knows where this conversation is going, with Jesus—as a Jewish man—telling her that she needed to worship in Jerusalem.  But he surprises her.  “The time will come—and now is—when it doesn’t matter where you worship.  It’s how you worship, the way you live.”  She doesn’t get it, so she says one more thing; one more intended dialogue to block Jesus’ offer of water.  “I’m not sure about that, but when the Messiah comes, he’ll tell us what we need to know.”  “I am he,” Jesus tells her.  I’m the one, the Messiah.

And then the light goes on.  She gets it.

The disciples come bumbling back at this point, asking all the same questions from before—why is Jesus talking to this woman and all that.  The woman is overwhelmed by it all, and leaves her still empty bucket and runs back to town.  “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did,” she tells them.  What she doesn’t add, but must be thinking is this, “and he still cared about me as a human being.”  “Is this the Messiah?” she asks.

They come out in droves.  Granted, they knew all about the things she did, but they stopped talking to her.  They gave her those looks.  They made it so uncomfortable that she had to get water at noon by herself.  But they go out to see what all the fuss was about.  And many of them come to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

But this story raises one vital question for me.  Why do we—even if we are dying of thirst—avoid taking a drink?  This woman is given a number of opportunities to drink the water Jesus offers, and she keeps changing the subject.  In her own way she seems to be saying, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get frizzy.”  Thank you very much for the offer, but even though I’m dying of thirst, I’ll keep things the same, if you please.

We do too, sometimes.  We live in fear of taking a drink of the living water that Jesus offers.  Either we don’t believe him, or we’re afraid of the unintended consequences—we worry about frizzy hair too.  We are prone to self-sabotaging our spiritual lives: not making time for prayer, or finding excuses why we can’t help out at local charities.  We leave the Bible on the shelf or the bedside table saying we’ll get to it tomorrow.  We avoid the conversation with a friend about our spiritual lives even though it feels like the discussion is going in that direction.  We refuse to take the first step in reconciliation.  We put up so many walls that we can’t see the water Jesus offers us even though we are in desperate need for a drink.

He’s here.  The one who knows all the intimate details of our lives and loves us anyway.  He doesn’t see all the labels others cast on us, or the ones we place on ourselves.  He always sees somebodies and never nobodies.  And he offers us a drink.  Will we take it?  Will we approach this altar and say to the Messiah, the Christ, please, give me the living water?  He’s holding out that cup for us and waiting.  Will today be the day we take that long drink?  Will this be the day that eternal water gushes in us so that we will never be thirsty again?  He tells us that we are all welcome, that even when we think we don’t deserve the living water, he offers us a cup so we can have our thirst quenched.  He’s holding out that cup.  The rest is up to us.

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A follow up on a question about Lent and Easter resources and books for kids.  Here are some things that we’ve found helpful.

Resurrection Eggs — These eggs allow you to tell the story of Passion through the use of symbols leading up to Easter and Jesus’ resurrection.  Great for helping children understand the story of this season.  $15 online here.

 

All Through the Day, All Through the YearThis is a book that is framed around the liturgical calendar from the beginning of Advent through the end of November.  It highlights special days and gives concrete ways to commemorate and celebrate throughout the year.  There’s a complete section on Lent, Holy Week and Easter.  It’s hard to find these days, but well worth the cost.

Veggie Tales: An Easter Carol This is a great video about the message of Easter told through the lens of A Christmas Carol.  It revolves around a plastic egg factory and the desire to tear down a church to create “Easter Land” where Easter can be forever.  Kids will love it!

A Host of Others Recommended by Melissa

Sharing the Easter Faith with Children: Helping Children Observe Lent and Easter

What we do in Lent: A Children’s Activity Book

Easter Extras: Faith Filled Ideas for Easter Week — lessons and hands-on activities for children to reinforce Easter and Holy Week events.  Wonderful Resource!

All Around Easter: 6 Discovery Stations for Kids and Their Families

The Very Fist Easter: Beginners Bible — puts the Passion Story on a level for kids.  Highly recommended!

The Legend of the Easter Egg

Stations for Teens

Ministry Ideas for Celebrating Lent and Easter with Teens, Families, and Parishes






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My sermon from yesterday, which was based on Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in John 3.

Lent 2A—March 20, 2011

Every so often you see him on TV.  The man with the prime seat, a number of rows up from the sideline, strategically placed so he can hold up his sign when one of the team’s goes for a field goal or the extra point.  It’s there, dead center between the goal posts as you watch the ball float up toward its destination.  A large placard with “John 3:16” on it.  It’s really free advertisement for Jesus.

We heard that verse this morning.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  We get some further descriptions about “the world” throughout John’s gospel: like how the world didn’t know the light because the people loved darkness more.  And that the world hated God.  And that Jesus was not of this world.  And yet God really, really, really, really loved the God-hating world.  Enough to send his Son.  God loved so much that God sent Jesus, who was not of this world, to save the world.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning of this story.  Where Nicodemus, this leader and Pharisee, seeks out Jesus.  Covertly.  In the darkness.  Because people love darkness more than light.  He comes to Jesus when he can hide, when people won’t notice, so in case he is seen, someone might ask if it was just a shadow, if it was someone how looked liked Nicodemus, but, nah, it couldn’t be him.  Why would he be following this teacher?  It must have been someone very like Nick, but not him.  He’s a member of the ruling council.  It wouldn’t be him.

“Rabbi,” he begins, “we know you are sent from God because of the signs you are doing.”  The first of which, we’re told by John, was turning the water into wine at that wedding in Cana.  And then a number of other signs that Jesus performed during the Passover, which led to many believing in him, presumably sparking this secret mission of Nicodemus to learn more.

Jesus almost seems to interrupt him.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Or born anew, the Greek is ambiguous with both meanings, but Nicodemus gets only the “again” part and so he asks how anyone can be born once more when they are old, thinking of the absurdity of the situation.

In other words, he doesn’t get it.  He’s in the dark.  He comes to Jesus, the light of the world, because he’s either seen some of Jesus’ signs or heard about them, and he knows that Jesus must be sent by God, but he can’t wrap his mind around who Jesus really is or what is his mission in the world.  John writes in his prologue, that the light “was in the world and though the world was made by him, the world didn’t recognize him.”

Jesus tries to unwrap it more, explaining that being born of the Spirit is like the wind.  You can hear it but you can’t see where it’s coming from or where it’s going.  But you know it’s there.  And it’s a mystery.  In the Greek there is ambiguity again, since spirit and wind are the same word “nooma,” and so while Jesus tries to open it up, Nicodemus is stumped.

“How can these things be?” he asks.

He’s incredulous and in the shadows and can’t see, although he’s trying.  He wants to see, to understand, but it’s all getting lost in translation.

 

I’m not sure who first recommended that I go in and visit with Steve, it may have been one of the nurses at the nursing station or maybe it was just by chance that I walked in to see him as I did rounds on the floor at the hospital I worked at one summer during seminary in Charlotte, NC.  Whatever the reason, I went in to his room one afternoon, introduced myself, and asked him if he wanted to talk for a little bit.  He was lying in his bed, watching a rerun of some sit-com with the volume turned down low.  There was a hi-tech wheel chair in the room off to one side, and a few pictures of a baby girl on the shelf by the TV.  He looked at me with a smile and invited me in.

I reached out my hand for his, and immediately I saw that Steve didn’t have the full range of use in his arms, although he grabbed my hand as well as he could.  Steve was a couple of years older than me, and I had seen in his chart that he had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks already.  Steve turned off the TV, and looked intently at me, and we started the beginning of what turned out to be a month-long conversation.  I learned that Steve was paralyzed from the waist down due to a diving accident when he was a teenager—he and some buddies had been out drinking one summer night, and he didn’t pull up fast enough when he dove into a lake from a steep incline.  He told me he didn’t get mad at anyone—how could he, he reasoned—since he was the one who had been drinking and he was the one who dove in.  He talked about how supportive his friends and family were during that time in his life.

We didn’t spend all our time that day talking about his accident.  He told me how much he liked baseball, and how he moved to Charlotte from the Mid-West.  We talked about his family, and especially about his new daughter, whom, along with his wife, he missed very much.  He told me about his job, and he asked me about my studies at seminary.  After an hour of talking, I prayed for him and promised I would come to visit again.

During the month Steve was in the hospital waiting for an infection in his leg to heal, we saw each other often and had many conversations.  In the course of those conversations, I learned that Steve attended a Roman Catholic church with his wife, and that what he wanted more than anything else was to be baptized there at that church so he could take communion.  He hated telling the ushers he didn’t want to receive communion when they asked him if the priest should come down from the chancel to offer him the sacrament.  He wanted to receive it, but he felt that he should be baptized first at that church, and so he waited.   And then he became sick and ended up at the hospital, waiting some more.

Shortly after that conversation—and after we had been meeting regularly for a few weeks—he asked me if there was anything in particular that he needed to say when he prayed to God, if there were any specific words that he should say.  I told him how praying was just talking to God like you would talk to anyone else, and that, while there was no specific formula to use, that some people like to read prayers already written to express what they were feeling.  Steve thanked me, and told me he wish he had a book like that to help him pray.    The next time I saw him, I brought a paperback collection of prayers that I had found in the hospital gift shop, hidden between the romance novels and the crossword puzzles.  He flipped through it as best he could and told me that it was exactly what he was looking for.

Steve’s illness was going away, and he was transferred to a rehab center shortly after that time. I wished him well one sunny afternoon with high hopes for his full recovery.  Unfortunately, however, after three weeks, the infection got worse and spread to his bone, and so he came back to the hospital for an amputation near the end of my time there.  The last time I saw Steve—two days after his surgery—he was pretty restless.  It seemed like he was really distracted and almost uncomfortable having me there.  We still talked for a while, and I told him that I would be leaving my job as a chaplain soon.  When I took his hand to pray that last time, Steve just wasn’t himself.  He kept moving around, and it seemed as if he didn’t want me to be praying.  Feeling discouraged, I finished my prayer and gave his hand a squeeze.

And then Steve started to pray.  He prayed that God would continue to guide my life.  He thanked God for the friendship I had provided to him over the summer.  This man who didn’t know even how to pray a month before, was praying to God for me.  He was showing me the way life could be.

I think I am as blind as the next person in seeing wholeness here in this life, but I was sure of it that day.   I think the shimmering images and visions we get of a transformed life are gifts given to us by God to remind us of the way things could be.  They remind us of our need for new life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, what he says to all of us who lurk in the shadows, is that there is so much more to life.  We have our expectations about the way things work, about the way life is to be lived, but there is so much more.  Jesus invites us to have our lives transformed—to be born anew, born from above—so that we can experience life in a new way.  So we can move out of the darkness into the light.

While that guy at the football stadium might seem like a nut job, in a sense who can blame him for forking over the cash for that seat and making that giant poster?  He’s seen what many in this God-hating world never do.  Transformation.  And he wants that to get as much air-time as possible.  Because God loves.  And God wants us to experience that love and the gift of salvation.  God wants us to see, and to step out of the darkness and into the light.  Oh, may it be so for us.  And may it be for this world of ours that is so deeply loved by the Holy One.  Amen.

 

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I chose the vocation I did because I love words.  And especially words about God.

And if I wanted to be honest, I would say that my vocation called me, but that is another post entirely.

As we enter the 40+ days of Lent (there are 46, by the way, because Sundays are always considered feast days for the church and don’t count in the Lent to Easter equation.  So, without any bad feelings, you can take a pass on your Lenten discipline on Sundays), one of the things we are invited to do is to meditate on God’s Word and to make time for that reflection.  In addition, I love to make time to read at least one or two books that help me reflect on Lent and the way of God in the world.

So here are a few for you to consider for your Lenten discipline.  I always link to Amazon (it’s just easier), but you can almost always find these books anywhere else on line, and some at your local bookseller.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Mioslav Volf.  This was the Archbishop’s Lent book for 2006, and is written by a former professor of mine from Yale.  Remarkable stuff.  Don’t be distracted by the fact that Miroslav is a prof at Yale.  This is accessible stuff.  He makes a great comparison between himself as a cyclist, the innate way ducks quack and God’s love (get the book if you want to figure out how this works).  This book (like all of his books) is deeply personal, and looks at how Jesus suffers in our place and what that really means.

Bread and Wine: Readins for Lent and Easter by various authors.  I love books like this; it’s a collection of readings for Lent and Easter from a variety of people spanning a great deal of time.  There are readings from St. Augustine and Philip Yance  Pascal and Henri Nouwen.  There are readings for each day in Lent and for half of Easter as well.  It begins on Day 1 (Ash Wednesday) with a selection from Kathleen Norris.  In it she tells of her work with young students as a Poet-in-Residence and one boy’s poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.”  She writes, “He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town.  The poem concludes, ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”‘” She continues by saying the boy was more honest than most adults and well on his way toward repentance. Nice for short reflections during the season.

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor. A wonderful short reflection on language around sin by this Episcopal Priest and professor at Piedmont College.  Taylor ponders how when we lose a way to talk about sin in our lives—we say “problems” or “issues,” but even now less and less of even that—we also lose the language of salvation.  If we don’t have sin, what are we being saved from?  She contends that when we have language around sin, we can move from “guilt to grace.”  A short book that is well worth having on your shelf.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by Beldon C. Lane. At times our journeys take us into difficult landscapes, often seen as deserts and mountains in scripture (and in real life, if you’ve been to these places).  Lane plunges deep into wrestling with his own wilderness times—writing about his mother’s struggle with cancer and Alzheimer’s—and rejecting the common language of Christianity being an easy road as expressed in pop spirituality.  In moving beyond the common understanding, he looks at how desert times become a mirror for our own inner brokenness, and the need we have for God to bring healing in them.  Perfect meditations for the desert season of Lent.

The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty by Peter Greer and Phil Smith. One of our Lenten disciplines should be the giving of alms.  This book lays out how to do this with an extended telling of stories about how bad poverty really is, and how easy it is to help.  The focus is on micro-finance with practical steps on how you can help change someone’s life through a small loan.  One of the stories is about a man who runs a small pharmacy who needed to close multiple times a day to run out a get more supplies because he had only enough capital to buy a few things at a time. With a small loan, he could buy more supplies for a cheaper price, cut down his traveling to once a week, and keep his store open for longer hours. He easily paid back his loan and expanded his business.  Wonderful on both the theory and the practice.

That’s five for now.  I hope you find something here that will whet your appetite and help you take on the Lenten Discipline of study.  And why don’t you take a moment to comment about a favorite Lenten type book that isn’t listed here.

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It was the Last Sunday after the Epiphany yesterday, in nearly the longest season after the Epiphany as possible.  And it was Annual Meeting Sunday.  The lectionary text on the Last Sunday is always the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top—it’s known as T-Fig to the cool kids in seminary.  It’s always the big high experience before we descend back down the mountain and into the valley of Lent and Ash Wednesday.

So when combined with my 1st Annual Meeting at St. Mark’s it gave me an opportunity to speak about mission and the year ahead.  I won’t repreach my sermon here—you can read it below—but it was a new take on the T-Fig for me.  And it was a great meeting to boot, because we spent time discussing the questions at the end of my sermon.  I hope those conversations continue, and invite you to keep them going on this blog post.

And, FYI, I’m getting closer to finding a sermon-recording solution.  Stay tuned!

 

Last Epiphany — Matthew 17:1-9

It’s six days after some pretty heady stuff in our gospel lesson this morning.  Jesus was with his disciples after Peter had just declared Jesus as the Christ, and he began telling them that he was headed to Jerusalem, which would lead to his execution and then he would be raised on the third day.   Peter took Jesus aside and told him that this wouldn’t be so.   What follows is that well-known rebuke from Jesus to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” and then a moment of teaching.  Jesus tells that motley group this: “If any want to become my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

It’s six days after that, Matthew tells us.  And Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves.  I suspect at least Peter, if not the two brothers, are still mulling over this need to deny themselves.  They want to be Jesus’ followers, but all this talk about losing their life and whatnot has to be troubling.

And then suddenly Jesus is transformed right in front of them, and light is radiating from his face, and his clothes turned dazzling white.  Those disciples have no idea what is happening, and then they see two prophets—Moses and Elijah—speaking with Jesus.  Peter wants to say something, so he pipes up with, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here; let me make three dwellings for the three of you.”  And while he is saying this, the cloud comes down from heaven, and God speaks.  “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased—listen to him!”

The disciples then fall to the ground in fear.  Jesus comes to them, tells them not to be afraid, and the entire episode ends.  They come back to their senses and back down the mountain and Jesus tells them not to speak about this until after he’s been raised.

Peter’s desire to stay up there on the mountain—Lord, it’s good for us to be here—is so typical.  Whenever things are good, or things are deeply spiritual, we want to stay in those places, many times calling them “mountain-top experiences.”  When we have a connection with God, we don’t want it to end.  We babble like Peter, “You know, it’d be really great to stay here and never go back to the real world!”  We want to set up monuments just like Peter as well to remember the time.  We want to dwell there in those moments.

Yet isn’t it fascinating that the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son—listen to him!”  Listen to him.  Follow his teaching.  Teachings like the one he gave just six days prior, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”  Those teaching are tough because we want to build permanent memorials and see if God can do that whole transfiguration thing over again.

I hate to say it, but it’s nearly universally true: most churches want to live in the past.  They desire to go back to the time when they were in the groove, when everything was firing on all cylinders.  When there were more people at services, and Sunday School classes were overflowing and the choir stalls were packed with excellent voices and events were well attended and there was that magical buzz.  They want to find their way back to the mountaintop experiences of their collective church life, whenever they happened.

In other words, they want to get back to the mountain even if Jesus is headed to the cross.

And the reality is that most clergy try to accommodate this notion.  We create more and more programs, we do new things, we try to get the buzz going—and many times it happens for a season—and then the numbers stagnate and the energy goes down and the parish begins to wonder if they’ll ever get back to the way things used to be.

The good news is that I haven’t heard a great deal of that language from St. Mark’s through the search process and since my arrival.  And I also want to say that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with offering programs or trying new things.  The problem lies in when we want to set up camp in a particular place or time, when we want to stay on the mountain top of the golden era.  It’s a problem because God asks us to listen to Jesus, to follow Jesus, and Jesus always comes back down the mountain.

To me that means this: Jesus comes back down to the people.  By following Jesus we recognize that Jesus lives in and among the people, not off in some far distant place, removed from it all.  Jesus is here, in the day to day experiences of our lives and not just reserved for momentous spiritual highs.

And that is good news.

When I began the process with you all I said in my cover letter that while I am concerned about what happens with Sunday morning worship gatherings, I am even more concerned with what happens after parishioners leave the church building, what takes place the rest of the week.  If Sunday morning isn’t anything more than an hour of sitting and standing and singing and whatnot—if it doesn’t do something or stir up something deep within us—then why bother?  Sunday worship and the ministries of the church should lead us to so much more.  It should invite us to be active in Jesus’ transformative work in our world.

It should invite us to be Jesus’ followers.  To be his disciples.

And that’s the work I feel called to do during my tenure as your rector.  I want to be about discipleship, and inviting you to join with me in that journey as we follow Christ, not for some spiritual high or exciting moment—although I hope and trust they will happen from time to time—but so we can transform the world and help establish the kingdom of God here and now.

What would it look like for St. Mark’s to become more and more a community of authentic followers of Jesus?  What would that mean about our regular worship and faith exploration?  How would we engage in sacrificial living, or deepening this community or in service to the world?  I think all of this begins with an invitation into a deeper spiritual life.  We can only expect to be light to the world if we ourselves are regularly connecting with the source of that light.

If we as a community become singularly focused on the mission of God in the world—rather than be solely concerned about what we supposedly want from a church—we would change the world.  I say this quite certainly because when we focus on what we want, we aren’t concerned with following Jesus as much as being focused on our hope to experience something we experienced before, or we hope to be able to continue on in our lives without having things complicated by the call of God on us.

“If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

In my prayers and longings, I see St. Mark’s becoming a parish known for its deep spiritual connection to the Triune God.  I envision us as the church who gives generously to our local community, to places in our nation, and to those around the world.   We do this because we believe we are both called to do it and because we recognize that working alongside our neighbors changes us through the gifts we receive from them.  I trust that we will engage in faith formation, knowing that none of us has learned all we can about this life in Christ, and that as we learn from one another and explore our faith we all will be transformed.  Finally, it is my sincerest desire that we become a welcoming place, where we genuinely care for one another and invite others to share in the life of our community.

What about you?  What do you sense God calling us to in the year ahead as a parish?  And what about you as an individual?  What longings do you feel deep within you about your spiritual life as a disciple of Christ?

My hope is that we share these dreams with one another.  That we listen to one another and see where there is connection and confluence, since that will ultimately be the direction the Spirit is leading us as a parish.  I am truly excited for this year ahead, and I know that if we follow Christ both up the mountain and back down among the people, and if we listen to his teachings, we too will be beloved of God.  Amen.

 

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A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently about something his rabbi said during Shabbat services.  “Sabbath,” the good rabbi said, “is like a snow day every week.”

I love that image.  Snow days–especially for kids–are filled with delight.  Putting on snow pants, hats and gloves to go out exploring and playing in the snow.  After a good long time, a cup of hot chocolate or tea.  Maybe a book by the fire or a favorite movie.  Certainly no work.

The best book I’ve ever read about Sabbath Keeping is by Dan B. Allender called simply Sabbath.  Frankly, it blew me away.

What he said is this: The 4th Commandment on keeping the Sabbath is the only we relish in breaking.  “I’m too busy to take time off.”  Or “I’m always connected to my work.”  Or something along those line.

Yet in the Hebrew one of the connotations of Sabbath is celebration.  God didn’t need to rest because God was “overworked” rather God took delight, God relished in all that God had done

Sabbath can become a living out of the kingdom of God that is to come in the present world.  It can become a time not of just cessation from the mundane, but of true enjoyment, taking pleasure in this wonderful world God has created and being restored.

“Dream delight for yourself and your family,” he tells his seminary students.  “Let yourself go with dreams as wild as you can imagine.  Don’t let money or physical limitations enter your thoughts.  Dream as extravagantly as you know how to do, then pray that you might truly dream well.  Where would your dreams take you?  Where would you go, with whom and what would you do?”

Maybe that scares the bejeezus out of you.  You may not know how to handle that much delight in our world, in creation, in sharing love with your family.  So you might just push this aside.

But if you are intentional — and let me be honest, you have to have intentionality to keep the Sabbath, you can’t just decide “Oh, today I’ll do it” because you won’t — Sabbath keeping can change your entire outlook on life.  What if you knew that at the end of each week you absolutely knew you would have a day of rest, of delight?  What if you knew you and your loved ones could count on being free from all obligations?  Or that it would be filled with a day of reading, or going in to Boston, or sharing a non-rushed meal with friends?

Imagine how that would transform your life.

And that’s the gift God wants to give us.  Each week.

Find that book or any other if you want to explore this further.  Or just decide today that beginning this week, you’re going to spend one day out of seven taking delight in God’s wonderful world, in the way the kingdom will be.

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My sermon from this 8th Sunday after the Epiphany.  You can read this selection from the Sermon on the Mount here:  Matthew 6:24-35.  It was a snowy day here in Southborough with light attendance at St. Mark’s due to the weather.  And it is a sad day for dear friends in Colorado.  A pillar of the church I served there is being taken off medical supports today, and he will be tremendously missed.  I cannot help but think of George in the context of this sermon as well.  May light perpetual shine upon him and all the saints.

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I’ve heard a lot of awful sermons in my life—an occupational hazard I guess since I spend a lot of time in worship services—but there’s nothing worse than a well-delivered sermon that utterly misuses scripture.  More often than not, these sermons are based on a single verse from the Bible that can be molded almost into anything that the preacher wants to say.  One of the verses we heard just a moment ago is a favorite for this style of preaching.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

These preachers will then say without batting an eye that if we seek God, then we will be prosperous—Jesus mentions material things in this context, after all—and if we have enough faith nothing difficult will happen in our lives.  God wants what is best for us and the means health and financial success and sun shiny days.  And we can get all this if we seek God first.

The conclusion of these sermons is usually something like this:  If you are in financial difficulty or your battling a terminal illness or your child is rebelling, it’s because you aren’t seeking after God enough—it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  If you did have that faith and were genuinely seeking God, God would be blessing you.

I have a simple response: Bull-pucky.

These preachers forget to mention that many of the original listeners to the Sermon on the Mount would soon be persecuted for their faith, that they would endure beatings and imprisonments and some would ultimately be martyred.  It also slips their mind, of course, that Jesus himself was homeless[1], would be abandoned by all of his followers, be wrongly accused and feel utterly deserted by God as he died a shameful death.

Jesus tell us not to worry about our lives—whether we’ll have enough food or clothing to wear or a place to stay—because God cares for us.  We’re worth more to God than the blue jay or the sunflowers, and since God takes care of them, God will take care of us even more.  God will be with us.

I can’t naively believe in a so-called prosperity or “health and wealth” gospel because I’ve seen faithful followers of Christ who have experienced dark situations in their lives—never mind the darkness I’ve encountered in my own life.  Should we assume that we aren’t truly seeking God, that they don’t have enough faith?  Or is there something else going on?

Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner recounts a dark time in his life in his writings.  His daughter was suffering from anorexia and his entire life was slipping away from him.  He writes, “My anorexic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and, without knowing it, so was I.  I wasn’t living my own life anymore because I was so caught up in hers. … [S]he knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself.  She had given up food.  I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly….  Of on one particular day she took it in her head to have a slice of toast with her diatetic supper, I was in seventh heaven.  If on some other day she decided to have no supper at all, I was in hell.  I choose the term hell with some care.  Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usually sources of light worked anymore and light was what I was starving for.”[2]

It was at one of the darkest moments during this time that Buechner sat in his car on the side of the road overcome by depression.  Soon a car passed him with the single word in the English language that he needed to see most.  The license plate read “TRUST.”[3] Trust God, trust life, he thought.  Some time much later, there was a knock at the door, and his daughter answered and an unknown man handed her the license plate.  He was a trust officer at a bank and had heard about Buechner’s story.  Rusted and battered, the plate become a holy relic for him.[4]

Five years ago my mother was in the beginning throes of what turned out to be a short battle with cancer.  Melissa and I had recently learned we were expecting our second child, and we prayed that Mom would be able to meet this new little one.  We affectionately called this one “Baby Sunshine” since the due date was in August and since we didn’t learn the baby’s gender, though we felt nearly certain we would have another boy.  In late May mom began hospice and two weeks later I stood by her bed, holding her hand and administering last rites.  She would never meet our little Sunshine.

In early August, I stood by another hospital bed holding Melissa’s hand.  After the tough final pushes, we heard the first few cries and the doctor saying, “It’s a girl!”  In that moment we were washed over with a tremendous sense of healing and were certain of God’s presence. Mom told us before she died how much she loved the name Olivia, so we named her that.   And we gave her a middle name to express exactly what we were feeling at that moment: Hope.

I cannot promise you that you won’t experience pain or that there won’t be times in your life when the darkness almost engulfs you.  I’d be a fraud if I did.  But I can promise you that even in the darkest days God is with you.  In fact, Matthew wants you to know this without a shadow of a doubt.  In the opening scene of his gospel, we are told that Jesus would be called Emmanuel, God with us.  And Jesus’ very last words in Matthew are these: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

“Don’t worry about your life,” Jesus says.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?  Strive first for God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”  God will be with you.

There will be times in this life when the darkness will be unbearable and you will doubt that God cares for you. God may not miraculously “fix” your problems—like letting you win the lottery during times of financial distress—but God will be present.  My prayer is that during those times you will see a license plate or hear a baby’s cry or experience something else that will remind you that Jesus is present and fill you with trust and hope.  In those moments—in those epiphanies—may the light of Christ break in to your life and take you back to the realization that no matter how dark it seems, Jesus is with you.  Always.  And that God cares immensely for you, more than you will ever know. Amen.


[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets.  Harper Collins, 1991.  Pg 25.

[3] Buechner, 49-50.

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