Author's Posts

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

Read more

Sunday I mentioned that I’d post some information about the Ancient Spiritual Practices which many Christians are rediscovering as a way to be grounded in the faith and to draw closer to God (See the Ancient Practices Series of books that have come out in the last couple of years, beginning with Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren).  One of these is the keeping of regular prayer.  For centuries this has been known as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office (as it’s known in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

The practice includes regular reading of scripture, psalms and prayers and is done at times throughout the day.  It grew out of the monastic tradition in Christianity, but probably goes back further to Jewish practice — Psalm 119:164  “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”  Seven times set aside for prayer was the monastic practice, however our Book of Common Prayer includes four (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayer and Compline).  If you’re interested in more of the history, go to the entry at wikipedia.

Keeping the Daily Office

Making time for regular prayer may seem daunting, and the form in our prayer book is tricky to maneuver.  Having said that, there are a number of resources that make the office much more understandable and, frankly, easier to do.  The biggest challenge to keeping the office (that comes from the Latin, by the way, officium or “duty”) is similar to doing any lifestyle change: it’s mental. Carving out time, be it once, twice or seven times a day, takes discipline.  But it’s well worth it and life-changing and life-shaping.

The best book out there on why you should pray the office is Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer (and part of the Ancient Practices Series).  Here’s a taste of his great and down to earth writing. “I stumbled into the daily office when I was almost forty years old.  And I have never quite recovered….. The world of prayer and contemplation to which I was introduced still draws me deeply, and I am still fooling with all of this, still convinced that there are deep truths buried here if I can just be smart enough, or patient enough or devout enough to dig them out. I am not much holier than I was before I began, but I am still trying nonetheless.”

You might still be asking what the daily office is.  So here you are.

The flow of the office:  Introductory Sentences (Invitatory), Psalm, Scripture Reading, Canticle, [2nd Reading, Canticle], Creed, Prayers.  [Confession once a day or more if needed].  For the longer offices in the BCP (Book of Common Prayer), the scripture readings are longer and dictated by a lectionary that prescribes readings for the day found in the BCP (an Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel and 2 Psalm selections); for the shorter offices, they are just a couple of verses.

The Psalms are the star of the office.  They are read through in a six week cycle and show the range of emotion in humanity, from the highs of great joy to anger and being deeply troubled.

You can pray the office regularly by going to The Mission of St. Clare online.  It’s tremendously easy if you can read on the screen.  Just bookmark the page.

Books that are a single source for the Office (rather than flipping around in the BCP and a Bible):

The Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle. The best wholly contained daily office books, including the Pocket Edition which has the seven hours throughout the day.  Highly recommended.

Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro Great new single volume book which includes Morning Prayer for every day of the year, and a seven day rotation for Evening Prayer.  Also includes a few hymns at the book, as well as prayers for other occasions in it.

The Contemporary Office Book has the four offices and all the readings put together by date so you won’t need to flip around in a Bible (ie all the readings for the 2nd Wednesday in Lent are together).  This is a handsome leather bound edition that is quite pricey (you may find it cheaper elsewhere), but a wonderful edition.

This is a longish post, but I have one more thing for you.  If you’d like to tackle the office in the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve created a cheat sheet. You can find a pdf of it here.

Interested in praying the office together? If you are interested in saying Morning Prayer together during Lent 2011, please respond to this post.  Even if there are one or two, I’ll make space in my schedule to come over to the St. Mark’s Parish House at either 7 or 7:30 Monday-Friday during Lent to pray together (because the office is easier to keep with one or two others).

Read more

This is must-see-TV in my book.  We often don’t see what happens behind the scenes when it comes to commercials or photo shoots, and this let’s us in on a glimpse of what that is like.  Props to Dove for doing this.  I hope every tween and teen-aged girl sees this and then talks with a trusted adult about the realities of “perfection.”

Read more

We’re hearing some texts that we don’t normally hear due to the long season after Epiphany.  The passage today was a great one about how to live in the kingdom of God.  And especially the need to have love.  This call is challenging, to be sure, yet I know that it is only when we move toward the way of God by showing that love that we can truly grow in our faith.

Moving Towards Maturity—Matthew 5:38-48

Type A personality individuals are, according to our good friends at wikipedia, “ambitious, aggressive, business-like, controlling, highly competitive, impatient, preoccupied with their status, time-conscious and tightly wound.  People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving workaholics who multi-task push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.”[1] Dictionary.com adds to this by stating: pertaining to a pattern of behavior characterized by competitiveness, a sense of urgency, perfectionism and assertiveness, and possibly associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”[2]

For those of us for whom this sounds familiar—don’t worry I won’t ask for a show of hands simply because I don’t want to raise my own—we’re in luck.  If ever there was a saying of Jesus seemingly directed toward those of us more tightly-wound in life, it’s this one.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  We Type A’s relish in the desire to be perfect, heading toward that place when all will be handled and the inbox will be empty and the weight will be off and the house be utterly all we dreamed and the job, by God, the job will pay handsomely and be even more than what we imagined.

We’re off to Nirvana.  Or la-la land.  Or Oz.  Take your pick.

Wherever it is, it isn’t real, of course.  While we imagine the places of perfection in this life, we all know that they don’t exist.  Those images are retouched and enhanced and made on some set in Southern California where they work for hours at creating the ideal image.  If you don’t believe me, go to my blog and check out the ad created by Dove about showing the evolution a model goes through in a photo shoot.

Maybe Jesus’ words don’t make you relish them as much as say, “Holy Expectations, Batman, do I really need another thing to juggle?”  Be perfect as God is perfect?  You’re kidding, right?  Maybe this is just one of those texts that remind us how much we need God and that we will never live up to some ridiculous expectations so why even bother.

And when we look back over the teaching Jesus is giving, why wouldn’t we say something like this?  “Do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  If anyone wants to sue you, give them more than they are asking for.  Give to every panhandler you pass, and love those people that annoy you.”  Is this even possible?  Should we even bother trying to live in this seemingly unrealistic way?

In his book, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith, Robert Gelinas writes about this very idea.  “If I told you you were going with me tonight to hear someone who has practiced the trumpet for thirty years, what would you expect?  Your hopes would be high, and you would anticipate hearing someone whose skills were highly developed.  Perfection wouldn’t be the standard, but surely it would be reasonable to look forward to an enjoyable performance.  What if I told you that I have practiced Christianity for thirty years?  What should you expect of me?”

He continues, “In a [jazz] ensemble community it is assumed that you know your instrument, have memorized the basic songs (called standards) and have practiced.  Can you imagine how these three assumptions could change what you expected of others and what was expected of you at church?  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could assume that fellow Christians were proficient and experienced when it comes to the essentials of the faith?  Wouldn’t it be nice if other believers could assume that we know not only basic doctrine but live it as well?  Shouldn’t other Christians be able to assume I love my enemies and turn the other cheek?  Mastery is not necessarily expected, nor is flawlessness, but a basic understanding of the essential grooves and riffs is not only needed but expected.”  “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to assume of any Christian that they are ‘practicing’—that they have a basic understanding of the essential groove of God and that, while perfection isn’t expected, you can at least jam together?”[3]

I think what Jesus is teaching us in this reading is that essential groove of God.  God is at the very core love.  And Jesus is inviting us to live the same way.  We’re not going to reach perfection, but we can go in the direction that God is laying out in front of us, we can, with practice, enter the song and feel the rhythm and get in the groove.

What Jesus tells us to do in these verses is the complete opposite of what we might do on our own out in the world.  If someone slaps us, we want to strike back.  But Jesus says to do the opposite, much to the surprise of both his disciples and those who get this type of response (like the British who were met by Ghandi’s non-violent methods, and those who encountered Martin Luther King, Jr).  We know empirically that Jesus’ method might be better in the long run, but we know as well that when we are hurt the easiest response is to make the other person pay for it.  And it’s hard to believe when someone doesn’t want to do this.

But Jesus is giving us a clue to what life in the kingdom of God will look like.  This “community is filled with people who think of others first.  Every decision and action is carried out for the common good.  Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love,” as one minister put it.[4] In this realm, if each person is our sister, our brother, going an extra mile wouldn’t be too difficult.  Which of us wouldn’t do this for someone we loved, especially if we knew that it would help them immensely or change their life for the better?  What Jesus does, essentially, is tells us that we need to recalibrate our instincts.  Yes, we love those who love us, but who doesn’t?  It’s much harder to love those who could care less about us.  If we’re willing to go the mile for a loved one, what about the kid down the street, or the woman the next town over?

We hear those stories, sometimes, don’t we, about someone giving up a kidney for another person.  Usually it’s because the donor knows someone who might need a transplant, so they offer to have the test done to see if they’re a match.  When they aren’t, sometimes they come up as a match for a complete stranger.  I know I stand in awe of the man who does this for an utter unknown.

Jesus tells us to love those who hate us so that we may be children of the Father in heaven.  So that we too may be perfect.

The Greek word translated “perfect” in this verse is telios, and it connotes reaching maturity or completion.  It is translated that way in the epistle written by James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  That maturity is what we are striving for not the idea of perfection that implies no flaws.  Rather we want to draw so close to God—to practice so much in the ways of God—that we can jam with God.  That we can find our groove in God.

Maybe you’ve never considered what it might look like to practice in the ways of God.  Or maybe you’re thinking that you’ve been a Christian for a long time but might not be able to hold your own in a conversation on faith if someone asked you.  Perhaps you’re thinking there would no way that you would turn the other cheek or even consider loving those who might be your enemies.

I’m here to tell you that it is never too late.  Whether you’re a young person still in high school or someone nearing the final chapters of your life.  You may feel that you have squandered some of the opportunities, but God is full of grace and mercy, and the way of Jesus can always be followed.  In the days and weeks ahead I’ll be posting some ways online for you to take up some of the ancient spiritual practices, beginning with regular prayer, or the daily office.  These practices shouldn’t feel onerous or one more thing added to your check list, but rather should be an invitation in to a new type of life, a new way to understand the world.

May this life of yours be lived in seeking out the way of Christ, so that you may ultimately reach a time when God’s work in you is complete and you enter into the kingdom as a child of the living God, and you take part in that everlasting jam session.  Amen.


[1] From wikipedia.org/wiki?search=Type+a+personality  Accessed Feb 18, 2011.

[2] From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/type+a Accessed Feb 18, 2011.

[3] Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Compsing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. Zondervan, 2009. Pgs 103-5

[4] Barbara J. Essex, “Matthew 5:38-48: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. Eds David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK: 2010.  Pg 382.

Read more

 

Today during my sermon I mentioned a fabulous film that came out in 1996, “The Spitfire Grill.”  It didn’t get much play time in local theaters, but it won the Audience Award from the Sundance Film Festival that year.  Set in a small-town in Maine, it follows Percy Talbott as she leaves prison and comes to Gilead, ME to begin with a fresh start.  It’s a story about the letter of the law verses the spirit of the law, and about finding redemption.  It’s a character film to be sure (if action’s your thing, pass on this one), and well worth the time to see it.

So, put it on your Netflix queue.  You won’t be disappointed.

Read more

If you love to read and you’re looking for something to get you through the winter, I strongly recommend Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.  It’s a true story on the life of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who was shot down over the Pacific.

I listened to the audio version of this great book on my drive across the country (shout out to Daniel for hooking me up with this), and was blown away by this incredible story.  I couldn’t believe how fast Nebraska went by!

You can get it anywhere right now (it’s a NY Times bestseller), including online at Amazon or at the local library.  I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

Read more

More snow this morning.  And the desire to climb back into bed or curl up with a mystery novel by the fire with a cup of tea.

But when it snows, I can’t help but think of a great and fun hymn from the hymnal, number 412 “Earth and All Stars.”  It has a great line in there about “loud blowing snowstorms” and lots of other things making noise in praise to God.  It’s a gentle reminder of Jesus’ statement that the rocks will cry out in praise  if people don’t, and that even when it seems bleak God is there.

The words are below.  Sometime we’ll need to sing them on a Sunday at St. Mark’s.  My favorite stanza is 5….


1. Earth and all stars, loud rushing planets, sing to the Lord a new song! O victory, loud shouting army, sing to the Lord a new song!

Refrain: He has done marvelous things. I, too, will praise him with a new song!

2. Hail, wind, and rain, loud blowing snowstorms, sing to the Lord a new song! Flowers and trees, loud rustling leaves, sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

3. Trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals, sing to the Lord a new song! Harp, lute, and lyre, loud humming cellos, sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

4. Engines and steel, loud pounding hammers, sing to the Lord a new song! Limestone and beams, loud building workers, sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

5. Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes, sing to the Lord a new song! Athlete and band, loud cheering people, sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

6. Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom, sing to the Lord a new song! Daughter and son, loud praying members, sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Words: Herbert F. Brokering (b. 1926) Music: Earth and All Stars, David N. Johnson (b. 1922)

Read more

This Sunday’s lesson was from the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus telling the disciples that they are salt and light. (See Matthew 5:13-20).

Great stuff to be sure, and great things to think about. And it gave me the chance to use those magic relighting candles while singing “This Little Light of Mine” for the family service. (There was a gasp the first time I blew it out during the line “Don’t let Satan [poof] it out” and the candle relit!)

Here it is, the sermon of the day.

Salt and Light — Matthew 5:13-20

One of the things I’ve discovered along the way, both as a Christian and as a priest, is that most of us as followers of Christ want to be seen as normal people. We don’t want to draw out too many distinctions with others who don’t follow Christ, and we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from those “other” Christians out there who are either too outspoken, too fanatical, too liberal, too conservative or whatnot for our tastes. “Oh, I’m not like those Christians over there,” we’ll say, “I’m just like you. I like the same things as you, and do the same things. There really is no difference between you and me except that on Sunday morning you drink your coffee and read the Globe, and I do the same and then head to church.”

To lay it all out there, we don’t want to be seen as weird.

The reasons we do this are varied: some don’t want to lose face in their work environments, others don’t want Christianity to come in between their friendships. Some don’t want to have people judge them based on their actions—be they seen as sanctimonious or hypocritical. More than anything, we don’t want to be perceived as judgmental of others. So we push our label as “Disciple of Jesus Christ” to the background and pull out a host of others. “Red Sox Fan” or “Dedicated Mom” or “Marketing Guru” or “Numbers Guy” or “(fill in the blank here).”

In church leadership circles, we imagine ways to make church more inviting to outsiders. We “talk about the need to create a safe, non-threatening, low threshold of belonging in order to draw people in.” We do this with good intentions, but you know the old saying about good intentions and their ultimate destination. Yet we don’t want to offend anyone, so we go at it this way regardless. We think it will grow the church, and for many it comes down to numbers, even in parishes. If I can get the average Sunday attendance up, then I must be “successful” as a priest. So we water the message down to some magical point where we think it will be palatable to the masses, while also being acceptable to the people we already have in the pews.

We’ve become, as I heard a priest put it once, the bland leading the bland.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, “but if it’s lost its taste it’s not good for anything and should be tossed into the trash.” And there’s the rub.

If we are to be salt and light—and notice Jesus doesn’t say, “You will be” or “You should be” but “You are…”—then we need to be proactive about that calling. We need to be intentional in the way we live, and in what we do with our time.

Living as a Christian is tough in our society. Ask any teenager what happens when a situation arises where acting in accordance with their faith means serious consequences at school with their friends—if, for example, they felt sorry for the person being bullied during lunch, but recognized the cost if they did something about it. Or ask any business professional who has witnessed shady practices by their manager, but sees only immense difficulty in their work life if they speak up to the CEO. Or ask any priest sitting on a plane who is hoping they can make it to cruising altitude and turn oo their iPod and avoid the typical “So what do you do?” question because there is no certainty where the conversation will go.

If I had to hazard a guess as to why we are this way, I’d say that it is because we have lowered expectations to a miniscule level. What does it mean to be a good Christian, these days? For many it means coming to church every so often, and maybe throwing a couple of bucks into the plate. And this isn’t their fault, by the way, nor am I trying to disparage any who might think this way. The unofficial word from many leaders in our denomination is that a person is in good standing as a member if they show up 3 times a year and are known to the treasurer (I don’t even want to begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard this in serious conversations with other clergy). Our official Episcopal Church documents go further, stating that a member is in good standing if they’ve “been faithful in corporate worship…, and faithful in working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” That’s a bit better, but it is still pretty non-committal about specifics.

A good friend of mine, a church consultant, writes, “I believe the low-commitment church is a primary reason why traditional religion has lost its influence and moral authority in America today. We might refer to [this] as the optional church; one that isn’t too inconvenient, doesn’t ask too much of us, doesn’t cost too much, and is certainly subservient to the consumer-driven society and the decidedly secular lives that people live today.”

Interesting thing about salt is that it doesn’t lose its saltiness through some chemical reaction or even over time. It loses its seasoning if it becomes too diluted.

We’ve become too used to a faith that asks relatively little of us, I’m sorry to admit. We aren’t light and salt in our dark and hurting world simply because we don’t know how to do this. It’s much easier to say someone else will do these things—other Christians, the government, NGOs, charities, good-natured people—and go on with our busy lives.

So what does this look like then? First, much to the consternation of many church leaders both lay and ordained, it is not to be found in inventing new programs. Creating new projects or new classes or whatnot will not help us in the long term to develop into salt and light. It’ll keep us busy, and maybe even tickle our fancies for a bit. But like everything else in this life of ours for which we are consumers, we’ll tire of it or burn out.

How we become salt and light is in recognizing that as Christians we are, as it has been put for centuries, “a new people, an alternative community with a new citizenship.” We are shaped as Christians through regular reading of Scripture and prayer, in allowing the Spirit to shape how we respond in the circumstances of our daily life, in building community with one another, in taking part in what have been termed the ancient spiritual practices . While we have a tendency to put spirituality in a neat little area of our lives that we can pull out as needed and is certainly separate from our “practical” lives, the early Christians and many since then recognized that through the life of Jesus we can see that God has come into every arena of life. Things can’t be labeled as spiritual and secular or public and private lives, rather everything is interconnected as shown in the life of Jesus, and this “not only changes everything, but should become the center” of how we live our lives.

To be salt and light means that we live into the reality that we are in fact different from our friends who don’t follow Christ. It means that we are to open ourselves up to being formed in the life of Christ, and recognizing that such formation doesn’t happen in a matter of hours or even a few days. We are salt and light when the center of our lives isn’t focused on us, but on God and others. What if St. Mark’s became a place that strongly encouraged its parishioners to enter in to this type of life? Those would be great expectations, to be sure, but isn’t that the life Jesus wants us to live into? What if this parish—what if we—became people who brought light into a dark world, including allowing the light of Christ into the dark places of our interior lives? What if we brought seasoning to every situation of our lives? If we did, I don’t think we’d recognize this place. We might not even recognize ourselves. But I can assure you that we’d change the world, and that would be worth it no matter the cost.

Read more

I read once that preachers are called at times to comfort the afflicted and at times called to afflict the comfortable.  A daunting task to be sure.

In addition, I firmly believe that all good preachers preach first to themselves and invite the congregation to listen in.  We get a string of prophetic readings during the season of Epiphany, and they are dang uncomfortable.  Hard texts to hear, and hard texts to preach.

I don’t think, however, that I am being faithful if I just ignore these texts.  If I merely preach what I think my congregation wants to hear, I’m a pretty lousy priest in the end.  We all need to be reminded about the world we live in, even when we are uncomfortable, because it remnds us what God sees in the world.

So to that end, my sermon from last Sunday.

 

What the Lord Requires — Micah 6:1-8

I’ve always loved court-room dramas, especially ones like To Kill a Mockingbird.  The trustworthy defense lawyer who mounts a great case so no jury in their right mind would convict.  I cherish the clues along the way that help build the case.  I love the suspense of waiting for the jury to come back from its deliberations.  And I am always disappointed when the jury comes back with a conviction when, like in the case of Tom Robinson the African American man convicted in Mockingbird, it is so painfully obvious that the person is innocent.

It’s a court-room drama we get this morning in our lesson from Micah, the YHWH is bringing a case against the Israelites.  “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and the let the hills hear your voice.”  In this drama, the mountains and hills make up the jury pool, and once they’re seated the Lord begins.   God starts by asking what was done to make the Israelites pay no attention either to God or the covenant they made on Mt. Sinai.  The Lord reminds the Israelites that he was the one behind their release from slavery in Egypt—the great Exodus—and God brought them to the Promised Land when they passed from Shittim into Gigal, places on either side of the Jordan River.  God reminds them of all the acts of salvation done on their behalf in years past; God wants them to remember because it is painfully obvious to God that Israel has forgotten.  They were there on the mountain to agree to the covenant when they utterly depended on God, but now that things were good, God and the covenant didn’t seem nearly as important.

“What have I done to you?” God implores.  “In what way have I wearied you?”

Israel emerges in this courtroom play as the kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar.  Instead of answering the questions asked by the Almighty, Israel responds, “With what shall I come before the Lord?  Shall I come before with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”  Now that I’ve been caught red handed, how do I make amends, God?  Is it bringing you the offerings you want?  Do you somehow want more?

The offerings quickly escalate from burnt offerings and calves a year old—both pretty routine—to thousands of rams, vats of oil and the giving of a firstborn child.  Israel is wanting to make things right with God at this point in the trial, wanting to be reconciled, but doesn’t see how this is possible in a religious sort of way.  Israel asks if anything can be given to wipe away the sin, if God would be pleased by any offering.

A third party—probably the prophet Micah himself—answers with what has been called the Golden verse of the Old Testament.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  In other words, if you show up and make all kinds of the right offerings to God, it still won’t matter if you continue doing what you are doing.  If you continue to ignore the widows, to take advantage of the poor, to cheat folks out of their money—all things denounced earlier in Micah’s prophecy—it won’t matter what you do.  What God requires is a change in heart shown by your actions to others and in your relationship to God.  It isn’t more time spent in the temple; it’s about conversion.

I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t a lot like Israel in our day and age.  While we’ve been dealing with a great recession—and I don’t want to downplay the hardships faced by some of our sisters and brothers during the last few years of economic difficulty and uncertainty—most of us still have been blessed with a great deal.  Sometimes we have a tendency, like the Israelites, to make our faith solely about our worship attendance: if we make it to church for communion on any given Sunday then we’re in the clear with God and can go on with our lives without a second thought for the rest of the week.

But God wants so much more.  God desires a relationship.  The Lord wants us, like the people of Israel, to see the world from God’s vantage point.  Because God does see the ones impacted by the recession, and the ones who don’t have enough food, or who can’t get clean water.  God cares and wants his followers to care as well.

I want to strongly recommend a book to you, it’s written by Rob Bell and called Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  On the back cover he writes, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more that $20 million.  Our local newspaper [in Grand Rapids] ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty.  This is a book about those two numbers.”

Here’s an excerpt for you:

One billion people in the word do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.   Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age 5 dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14% of the food we purchase.

Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American dollar a day.  Another 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than two American dollars a day.  More than half the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenage spends nearly $150 a week.

Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.  1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world cannot read or sign their name.  Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education. …  Four out of five American adults are high school graduates.

Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half the world does on all goods.[1]

In addition to these unbelievable truths, Bell give us these tidbits to chew on a few pages later:  “The US accounts for 48% of global military spending.  Less than 5% of the world’s population purchases nearly half of the world’s weapons.  In 2008, the US spent more on defense than the next forty-five countries combined.  The US spends more on defense than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined.”[2]

If God were laying out a case against us, there’d unfortunately be a lot of evidence.   And sometimes when a case like this is mounted against us we want to respond like Israel, we feel so guilty that we don’t know how to dig ourselves out of the hole.  “How can I stand up before God, and show proper respect to the high God?  Should I bring an armload of offerings?  Would God be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin?”[3] Like Israel, our focus goes to how we make it up to God when faced with our failings.  We think maybe if we do more, we can somehow make amends.

And yet that’s not the response God is looking for.  Listen to the words from Micah again from the Message Bible, “But [the Lord] has already made plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

That’s our call, as followers of the living God.  In the weeks ahead we’ll be talking more about how to put these three requirements from God in to place in our lives, but  in the meantime, I think it means this: We are called to be the Body of Christ.  To be, as Rob Bell puts it, people who have committed themselves to being a certain way in the world.  “Our destiny, our future, and our joy” he writes, “are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.”[4]

How is God calling us to share our gifts with the world and to deepen our connection with God?  Will we open ourselves both to God’s evidence of our failings and also to God’s deep mercy and desire for us to be so much more?  I hope that we will, and trust that, if we do, God will have the case against us thrown out.


[1] Rob Bell and Don Golden.  Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Zondervan, 2008.  122-23.

[2] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, pgs. 127-8.

[3] Language from the Message Bible (Micah 6:6-7).

[4] Bell, 163.

 

Read more

I mentioned a book by Rob Bell this past week in my sermon, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.  It’s actually by Rob and Don Golden.  Both these guys are tremendous pastors and also have a real heart for the life God is calling us into.  It’s a tremendous and thought provoking and very challenging book.  Where Rob and Don end up is on how we, as the Body of Christ, can be a Eucharist for the world.  I won’t say much more than that, except that it is well worth the read (and you can get it through the Central Mass Libraries if you want to check it out).

Read more