“It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Sometimes as a preacher I have no idea where a text will take me. Parts of some texts are very familiar, and so there isn’t really anything new to say about them. Or maybe we just focus in on the parts that we like that are familiar.
But today when we read Mark 3:20-35 I was caught by Jesus’ family and the scribes going after him. It’s an interesting side note to the bigger stuff going on—Jesus’ line about a kingdom divided against itself. But it’s pretty significant. His family wanted to quiet him down.
And so I followed that trail downward and it got me to this sermon about the second half of life (from Richard Rohr) and other thoughts.
My sermon from today.
In the denomination I grew up in—a church that believed heavily in a radical conversion experiences much like the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus—would sometimes tell us that family members might not approve of our conversions and call us weirdoes or “Jesus freaks” or “Holy Rollers.” If they did, we were to hold onto that as a badge of honor. And maybe we needed to let go of those family members and their concerns in order to be more focused on Jesus anyway. We’d be reminded of Jesus saying that to follow him you needed to leave mother and father and sister and brother.
Nowadays when something like that happens—when an individual finds a church and pushes away their family members because they don’t share the same beliefs—I might have serious doubts about the church or the individual. Partly because I think the gospel has a lot to say about community and relationships and how we are to deepen those connections, and partly because I still carry some baggage from that time in my life.
But then I encounter a text like the one we read this morning, and I can’t help but remember those times. Before the part we just read, Jesus had entered a boat to stop the crowd from crushing him, and he left them on the shore. When he made landfall, he went into the hills to officially call the Twelve, and then he made his way to this house. Mark tells us that the crowd has been tracking him and finds him again. And, we’re informed, Jesus family is getting worried. They hear about all the commotion he is causing, and they try to get control, because others are talking about him. “He’s crazy!” they hear. “He isn’t the same Jesus we remember when we were growing up. He’s gone mad.” I guess they say this because he’s been healing people, and a great deluge of folks from all over—as far away from Jerusalem—are making the journey up to Galilee to hear his teachings and to be healed by him. His mother and brothers hear about this and try to make it go away. Maybe they’ve been hearing snide comments at the marketplace, “Is it really true what I’ve heard about your Jesus? Is he really pretending to be a rabbi? It’s too bad; he was such a nice boy.” So they want to put an end to it.
And then the scribes jump on Jesus too. “He’s possessed!” they claim, trying to make Jesus look ridiculous or evil. They want the people to stop following him. A smear campaign seems the best chance to do away with this one that they don’t understand. Jesus is getting too popular and pushing much too hard on the acceptable norms, so they resort to flinging mud.
This isn’t the comfy sort of Christianity that we like to promote, is it? It’s easier to overlook this, to see these interactions as flukes in our Gospel stories. But Jesus is coming into conflict with his family and the religious authorities, and he is our example and forerunner, the very one we base our life on.
A friend of mine encouraged me to read Richard Rohr’s outstanding book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr, a Franciscan priest and frequent retreat leader, argues that many in our westernized culture never make it out of the first half of their lives, the part focused on identity and vocation and building a healthy ego. He goes further by saying that many churches and clergy never get beyond this much either; sermons focus on calling and identity and making people feel good about themselves. Additionally, because we often do such a poor job in the first half of our lives—maybe we had parents who never experienced the second half of life themselves, or we didn’t even know it existed, or possibly the circumstances of our lives left us in a state of arrested development—we often try to do it over again later in life.
Rohr’s main premise is that the second half of life can only begin through a major falling, a significant life change like a death or divorce, or a traumatic experience or failure. When this happens—and he reminds us that we cannot make it happen, it just does, and it will—we have the opportunity to see that all of our life experiences leading up to this point was just introduction, it was only background. The journey of forming, identity, vocation and whatnot was simply to create a container for the real story we have yet to embark upon. The first half was necessary, of course, we couldn’t journey into the second half of life otherwise, and it must be done well. But if we want to discover our true calling, the stuff that we were really sent here for, then we must enter into the second half of life even though we won’t want to.
He writes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. … [Y]ou will and you must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way that Life-Fate-God-Grace-Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute in the spiritual literature of the world.”
These are hard words, but I know them to be true in my own life. I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago the difficulty I experienced in Colorado at the church I served there. I didn’t give specifics because on one level it is not entirely my own story to tell, and on another I am always suspicious of clergy or leaders who badmouth some other community or person in order to make themselves look good. But I can say with certainty that in that place far from home, I faced and experienced tremendous loss. Had I known now what was to happen, I would have not gone willingly. But God had other things in mind, and in fact Melissa and I felt with utmost certainty that God wanted us to go. The call to leave New England and move across the country was unmistakably clear.
I said to Melissa earlier this week that what I faced there was the most difficult experience of my life. Even harder than burying both of my parents.
As a priest I hear stories from people when they experience the great falling that Rohr talks about. An ending of a relationship, a traumatic encounter, a significant problem with a child or a debilitating illness. My inclination is to wish them out of it, or take away their pain or try to make things better. But I can’t, really. I can pray, which I do, but I can’t do much else other than to say that I hope they know God can redeem this situation. But it means them reaching their limits—recognizing that they don’t have power to get through on their own. Eventually God can use this experience and help them move toward the deeper calling in life that God has always had for them.
Because that’s what is really going in in this passage from Mark. Notice Jesus’ response to all of these attacks on his character: he talks about how he isn’t from Beelzebul at all. Rather he came to tie up the strong man, Satan himself, so that he could plunder Satan’s home. Jesus is telling those scribes and family members what he’s really called to do. The beginning part there in Nazareth, well that was all introduction and first half of life stuff. It was necessary, to be sure; Jesus needed a strong family home and strong sense of himself. But he wasn’t called to be a carpenter. He was called to something much, much bigger. And he needed to leave home for that. And have a major event like his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil.
We are called to so much more too. But you won’t often hear about that in our society that wants to keep us happy so we keep living our lives as consumers. And it’s hard to explain to family members and those we love who knew us back in our youth, especially when we seem to change course, or experience a major fall. They don’t know how to respond, so they try to restrain us and bring us back to our senses.
Yet Jesus gives us unexpected hope. Mark tells us that he’s in that house, and his mother and brothers have finally arrived, supposedly to come and take him away. They send word in to him to let them know that they are here for him. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks. And then looking at those around him, the ones desperate enough to follow him and seek his touch and to hear his stories and press in on him, he says, “They’re right here. These are my mother and my brothers. Whenever anyone does God’s will, they are my mother and brother and sister.”
God’s will. These folks are doing the will of God in leaving their own homes to follow Jesus. They are participating in God’s desire for their lives when they strike out and chase and push forward and soak it all in. They themselves are well on their way to the second half of the spiritual life. We can be too, if only we see in our misgivings and uncertainty and loss and failing the abiding redemption of God who yearns to have us embark on the true calling of our lives. Jesus wants this for us. He wants for us to truly engage in God’s will for our lives. Can we do it no matter the cost? Can we be among those he called brothers and sisters and mothers? Will we trust that when we are at our utter end, that God will be with us and give us the strength to go forward?
 Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey Bass, 2011. Pg 65-66.
It’s a memoir by a twenty-something recovering evangelical (I should probably say “fundamentalist”) Christian who thought she had all the answers, that is until she had doubts herself. Especially when it came to God being portrayed as cold, hard and uncaring by tossing thousands of people into hell each day. Rachel is the daughter of a more conservative theologian and grew up immersed in the evangelical Christian sub-culture (one that is very familiar to me) in Dayton, TN, home of the Scopes Monkey trial, hence the name of the book. Her questions often are met with pat answers to inferences about losing her eternal salvation.
Rachel tries to reconcile her ideas and faith in God with the world as she has come to experience it. But it’s hard when she has spent much of her life being told she needs to be ready for questions from unbelievers so they can be led to conversion. She mentions attending an apologetics camp in the summer to learn the appropriate way to disarm combatants of the faith.
While she is certainly questioning her upbringing, I don’t hear much anger in her tone. She’s both grateful, it seems to me, for what she learned and also eager to evolve in her faith. If she didn’t have the faith of her childhood, I don’t know how much evolving would take place.
As an Episcopal priest, I both laughed and knew exactly what she meant when she described an email sent by a concerned friend. This friend had heard that she’d “become a universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible like an Anglican” because Rachel questioned if God really created so many people in order to damn them to hell. The response from that friend led to a great conversation of “pond-scum theology” in which we should just be happy God lets any of us receive eternal salvation since we are all so horrific due to our sin nature and our complete non-redeeming value.
She gets to the very heart of the matter when she writes, “If I’ve learned anything over the past five years, it’s that doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It helps us cast off false fundamentals so that we can recover what had been lost or embrace what is new.” By writing that I’m sure she faced the scrutiny (and certainly the complete dismissal) of some still deeply entrenched in the more conservative circles of Christianity. That she is bound for hell even writing that.
But questions about the wideness of God’s mercy when it comes to the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who would have been eternally damned (according to the worldview espoused in her childhood), and how to find heaven here on earth show that she has evolved in her faith. Does she have all the answers? Heavens no. But her questions are deeper, richer, and we are certainly blessed by finding our own story in hers and by asking better questions ourselves.
As one who has also evolved in the faith, has asked hard questions of God, and more importantly, in the issues of faith about God that I had always been taught, I found this memoir fantastic, poignant and very close to home. Even if your journey hasn’t been through a conservative Evangelical experience, I think you’ll find Rachels’ stories rewarding and thought-provoking.
We made water propelled bottle rockets this week with Noah’s Cub Scout Den (I’m the Den Leader). It’s a pretty easy project including a soda bottle or two, some tape, glue, foam board and an exacto knife. It took a bit to get going — not surprising with eight first graders — but they soon got into it and were excited to try it out.
Even though the rockets were technically for our next Pack meeting (the big group of all Cub Scouts), we decided to give them a try even though the glue wasn’t quite dry and there was a strong possibility of destruction on impact. They boys had a blast (no pun intended). With the help of a dad, they put their rockets on the launch pad, someone did the hard work on the bicycle pump, and then one of the boys pulled a release string. Up they went, some much higher than others, some in spirals of craziness, some with a loud woosh. Seriously a blast (okay, that one was intended).
Some of my friends had those handheld plastic water rockets from the 70s and early 80s when I was a kid. Same sort of principle on a smaller scale. FIll up a plastic rocket with a little water, pump in some CO2 and once the pressure has built, release a trigger. I suspect you cant’ find them today as much because boys like aiming projectiles at each other.
Noah oozed excitement. He couldn’t wait to see his launch, and wanted to pull the trigger-release string. All smiles. What surprised me was how much I loved it too. Seeing what would happen when one of the boys let ‘er rip, watching how different designs impacted flight. Laughing hysterically when one of the rockets literally blew apart.
I’ve always loved the movie “October Sky.” It’s about some boys from coal mining country who get consumed with making rockets around the time of Sputnik, and the science project that results. It’s about following your dreams and passions and finding the joy in the simple things of life.
Sometimes it’s easy to lose your focus in life. We get so used to consuming — be it entertainment, social media, food, and whatnot — that we don’t really experience all the fullness of life out there for us. Like focusing on people rather than things or having fun. Or taking an hour and building a water bottle rocket with my son and watching it shoot up into the evening sky. That was a highlight of the day for me. And today I’m drinking a bit more soda than I usually do so we can build another rocket this weekend.
Whenever something politically happens like Amendment 1 in North Carolina, I hear arguments that if same-sex couples were allowed to legally marry or partake in a civil union heterosexual marriages would fail.
Ironically, when I’ve met with couples whose marriages are falling apart, not one person has ever said to me it’s because of a gay or lesbian couple. So I think it’s safe to say that this is just an out for people so as not to face a more difficult political conversation.
I can tell you that when I meet with folks these are the issues that come up:
lack of communication
money and finances
falling “out” of love
And unfortunately, by the time a couple comes to see me it’s usually too far gone–the relationship is on life support–and divorce is on the horizon.
And I think the chief reason this happens is this: We can’t admit that there are problems. We live in a world were everything appears to be perfect–we are inundated with this message day after day from Madison Ave.–and so when a storm kicks up, we hide it. We don’t talk to one another or to any close friends. We let our communication skills go to seed. Anger and resentment creep in. We look for solace wherever we can find it–be it in the arms of another person or in the bottom or a bottle–and we spiral downward. All the time keeping the mask on that everything is okay.
We’ve gotten so used to the idea of divorce that it doesn’t really shock us nor does it snap us back to our senses in working at ways to make our marriages more healthy. It’s almost inevitable when rough seas come up. A couple assumes they weren’t meant for each other, and so they go their different ways.
Actually, they’ve decided either together or individually that what they have isn’t worth fighting for.
I think God wants us to have strong marriages that last a lifetime. And unfortunately, that requires tough work. It’s not easy. But that might be a blessing in disguise. We have a tendency to value that which costs us when we make it through the other side. So keep at it.
If your marriage is on the rocks, I’m truly sorry because that’s a really crappy place to be. I hope that you get help if you can, if not as a couple because your spouse is unwilling, at least on your own. If you can’t find anyone, drop me a line.
And let’s realize that other couples and their recognized or non-recognized relationships don’t destroy our marriages. We do that all by ourselves, and it’s time to at least be honest about that.
He blew me away. Seriously. The guy is a tsunami of love. He told the gathering stories that fall under that cliche of truth being stranger than fiction. Like how he became an honorary consul of Uganda. As in diplomat with cool Ugandan flags for his car. Did I mention he’s a white guy from California?
Or how he does a lot of work sitting outdoors. At Tom Sawyer Island. In Disneyland.
I’ve never heard the word whimsey used so frequently, and yet I realized how desperately I wanted both whimsey in my life and the deep love that Bob had for every single person he meets.
When I got him to sign my book, he gave me a huge hug. I’m an Episcopal priest who regularly gets schooled on the need for proper boundaries; I don’t often do hugs. He didn’t care.
And the book is like that. Lots of stories of the way he does life and love. Love is an active verb for him. Each day is opportunity to experience life, get the bad guys (he’s a lawyer), and share love. Who wouldn’t want more of that?
Each chapter is a stand alone essay on life, like the time a woman hit his Jeep and sent him flying or the one about the boat race or what happened to his wedding cake. Bob then takes that incident and talks about what he learned from it, not in a pat-answer-make-you-wanna-throw-up-a-little-in-your-mouth way but a serious-questioning-faith-trying-to-make-sense-of life way. And that makes all the difference.
The writing at times is a little repetitive, but it’s easy to overlook that when you have an engaging story. The world needs more of us to take just a few ounces of Bob’s charisma and love and share that with our world. An incredible life can be had by each one of us if we did more love and less fear.
Bob shows us how.
I would have easily bought this book. You should too. Unless you’re in my congregation. I’ll let you in on that “caper” (as Bob would call it) pretty soon.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Bob Goff as part of the “Storyline Conference.” I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
We read one of my favorite stories from Scripture yesterday. I think I liked it first because one of the central characters has my name. And I like it even more because of what it says about God’s kingdom.
We Christians spend too much time talking about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to faith. We think somehow this conversation is helpful, except when you’re the one on the out and trying to figure out how to get in. Or even worse, deciding that it’s not worth it getting in.
Jesus seemed a bit more relaxed than we are when it comes to this kind of thing. He says, “Follow me,” and we get to do just that if we want.
I’m showing my cards on where this sermon is going, so I’ll let you read it.
Easter 5 Year B—Acts 8:26-40
We gathered in the cool, slightly musty basement of an old Episcopal Church with the elementary aged-students who had come to Vacation Bible School that week. I think there were about 15 students, and 6 adults. We watched as a few of the students were acting out the lesson of the day, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
I watched patiently, waiting for the story to be done so we could move on to the craft that I was helping with and then outside to the games that I would be leading. Melissa had the script in hand in order to give a cue if needed, as Philip and our Ethiopian gallantly read their lines. We came to the climax of the story, when they happen upon that water. The young boy playing the Eunuch looked intently over towards Philip and with steely determination, said emphatically, “Look! Here is water! What’s to prevent me from becoming a Baptist?”
Before we can get to this question at the center of our lesson from this morning, there’s quite a bit leading up to this. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, is a master story-teller and so I want to give him his due today.
Our story really begins in Acts chapter 1, just before Jesus ascends into heaven. He is there with his disciples giving his last instructions, and his very last words to them are these, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, without anything else to be said, Jesus is taken up from them. They must be marveling at these words, since it seemed that Jesus had come for the Jews, and yet, he tells them that they would be sharing his message of love and hope with those further afield. They would be exclaiming his good news with Samaritans, and even the Gentiles, those at the ends of the earth.
In chapter 6, Luke reports that these are getting complicated for the early church. Some of the Hellenists, that is Greek speaking Jews, felt like they were getting left in the lurch by those Jews who, like the disciples and Jesus himself, spoke Aramaic. These two camps were separated due to their language differences, and as such the Hellenist widows weren’t getting their share from the food bank. The disciples appointed seven deacons full of God’s Spirit, including Philip, to wait on tables and to live lives of service. Luke declares that the church continued to increase even more.
But as the church began to increase, there also became an increase in the amount of persecution. Saul—later on he’ll be known as Paul—led the charge against the Christians, and the believers were scattered in all different directions trying to avoid him. And in Chapter 8, a little before our reading today, we read that Philip went to Samaria to proclaim the Messiah to them.
Remember that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. The Samaritans were half-breeds, they were descended from Jews who hadn’t left Jerusalem during the exiles, and who had intermarried. When the exiled Israelites returned, the Samaritans were treated like second-class citizens—much like the “half-bloods” in Harry Potter’s world who had both muggle and wizard parents.
But Philip shares the message of Jesus with them. Jesus’ last words about the spreading of his message is beginning to happen. Philip, this Helenistic Jew, is allowing the Spirit of God to break down the barriers and spread the message with Samaritans, and they believed and were baptized. Word soon gets back to the believers in Jerusalem, and they send Peter and John to investigate, to see if the Spirit had actually moved there in Samaria. They are astounded to see that it is in fact true, that these folks had believed in Jesus.
At this point in the story we come to the lesson we read this morning when an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to leave Samaria and to head on the road to Gaza. He does just that without questioning.
Luke interrupts his retelling to fill us in on the background of the other character in this unfolding drama. Notice the description he gives us. “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,… [h]e had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home.” He had come to worship, and what is left unspoken—the thing that every Jewish person would know— is the simple line, “and it would have been almost impossible for him to do so.” This man had made his way to Jerusalem from Africa, a long pilgrimage to be sure, and he would not have been admitted into the temple to worship because of his sexual status. Deuteronomy 23 spells it out clearly in somewhat graphic terms, “No one who’s emasculated by crushing or cutting shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” This eunuch would not have been welcomed in the temple like other men. He would have to stay outside the courts of the Lord.
He is a God-Fearer to be sure. He made this long journey, worshipped as best he could, and on the return trip he reads from Scripture. But notice that he isn’t reading Deuteronomy—the book that excludes him from worshipping God—he’s reading from Isaiah chapter 53. This Ethiopian eunuch no doubt would have also known Isaiah’s words that address him specifically a couple of chapters later, in Isaiah 56. Isaiah writes, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The Lord goes on to say that the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord would be made joyful in his house. Isaiah holds open hope for this man who had been barred entrance into the temple, a hope that would be even greater than children.
As this man’s chariot comes by, Philip is told to walk alongside it. He then hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from Scripture, and asks if he understands what he is reading. Philip isn’t asking if he can make sense of the words, of course, he’s asking if the man recognizes the spiritual sense. The eunuch, this official in Candace’s court, responds with great humility, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” Surely this passage hits home for him. He too, would be unable to speak of his descendants. Certainly he was deprived of justice in life and probably recently back at the temple of the Lord where he was unable to fully worship in the temple. He was an outcast. And so he asks that simple question of Philip, “Is the prophet speaking about himself, or is it about someone else?” He could have easily have asked, “Is this about me?”
Philip uses this passage as a jumping off point about Jesus. He knows the story of Scripture and the interplay of Jesus’ life by heart. He explains that Jesus himself was denied justice, that he was treated much like a lamb. Philip told the eunuch about Jesus’ life, how he healed the sick, and taught his disciples about how life in his kingdom was like a lost sheep or a son who went off on his own, only to find his father still waiting for him. Philip would have told him about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And he would have mentioned Jesus’ last words, that the message of life and hope and love brought about by Jesus was meant for the entire world. Even him.
At that point they happen upon water in the desert. “Look! Here is water!” he exclaims excitedly. “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks Philip. All of those years of being forced out, of being pushed away from the worship of God. The shame of his condition had probably come to a climax for him when he was refused entry to the temple in Jerusalem, this place that he had traveled so far to see. “Is there anything stopping me from becoming a follower of Jesus?” he asks.
The question just hangs out there in our story. We don’t even get a verbal response from Philip. The next verse simply says that the chariot stops, both men go down to the water, and Philip baptizes the eunuch.
Philip’s actions, prompted all along by the Spirit, give an emphatic answer to his question. “There is nothing that is stopping you from being a follower of the true and living God as revealed in Jesus Christ. His message of love, forgiveness and hope is for everyone, even those whom others ostracize, even the ones that society forgets. The kingdom of God is open to everyone who desires to honor God and follow the resurrected Christ. Everyone. No questions asked.”
And that is good news whether you’re a eunuch, an Episcopalian, or even a Baptist.
I presided at my father’s funeral a week ago today. He died Easter Day while I was traveling with my family to be with him. Even though I didn’t get to say one last good-bye in person, these past months I saw him quite a few times and felt his love and grace.
Many have commented on my ability to do my dad’s funeral and give his eulogy. Honestly, it was an honor. Difficult to be sure, but my last tribute to a great man.
Here are the words I shared last week with the folks who came out to my Dad’s funeral.
As you can imagine in my role as a priest, I do quite a few funerals. Some might see it as an occupational hazard, but any clergy person worth their weight in salt will tell you they prefer funerals to weddings; there are no bridezillas when you bury someone. When I lead families into my study, I know how difficult it is for them as they try to piece together the past days and weeks which all went too fast. They think about things spoken, and things left unspoken with their loved ones. Memories of past years. And often for sons who bury their fathers, a desire to know that they’ve lived up to their expectations.
Inevitably part of the conversation I have is about those relationships, and the hurts and joys that have taken center stage. Like the twenty-something son who had three younger brothers. His life didn’t follow the trajectory his father would have hoped, and he sought to be reconciled when his dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It never happened, and I remember holding his hand, crying together, over his loss.
Another time, I remember the joy a step-son felt when we met in my office. While he couldn’t fathom burying his step-dad so early, he exuded gratitude for this man who married his mother when he was just a young boy. He found a true dad in his life after his biological father had run off soon after he was born.
I experienced the pain of a fractured family when two older sons each met with me individually to plan their father’s funeral. Each felt the other had taken advantage of dad, and they despised one another. I just quietly prayed that they might find peace.
Each time, as these sons talk with me about sending off their fathers with a eulogy, I give the same advice. Tell stories that you remember about your dad that will bring him to life. Be sure to type it up, in case you break down and can’t make it through, so someone else can finish for you. Try to keep it to a couple of pages, otherwise you may ramble. And I always follow it up with a couple of pointers on public speaking, and then say a prayer with them.
My earliest memories of Dad are of sharing the mornings together during the summer. We were both early risers, and it was my time to be alone with him while the rest of my siblings and mom slept in. We often followed the same routine. He would get me a bowl from the high cupboard, and I would grab a spoon and the cereal I wanted. We would sit at one end of the huge table in our kitchen, he drinking his coffee and I slurping my Cap’n Crunch. We talked about whatever was important to a boy of five—like the huge bullfrog hanging out in the ditch—and then sat in the quiet together. Soon enough Dad would put his cup in the sink so he could get off to work, and I would carry over my bowl.
We followed this script religiously, until I discovered one afternoon with the help of my siblings that I could climb onto the counter and get my own bowl. The next morning when Dad asked if I wanted cereal, I told him I could get my own bowl now and no longer needed his help. He watched as I deftly scrambled onto the counter, stood up and took down a bowl. Years later he told me how hard that day was; he knew I was growing up, but he wanted time to slow down a little bit so he could cherish it a bit longer. I was just excited to do it myself.
Dad and Mom met not at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, but a party thrown by one of their mutual friends on St. Patrick’s Day. They both had come with other dates. Dad remembers meeting Mom that night, and he was smitten with her. If pressed, he would tell you that it was her legs that he noticed, an asset that remained with her for her entire life. God help the woman he came with, because Dad obviously paid her no mind. The following week he had gotten a blind date set up with Betty. As she told the story, she didn’t even remember meeting him at the party, but she was a looker and he couldn’t get her out of his mind. They hit it off and were married eight months later.
Dad was a horrible cook. There is no polite way to say this. It isn’t that he couldn’t cook if he needed to, but the results were, putting it politely, less than palatable. I remember one horrifying time in particular when Dad traveled with me to a boys’ weekend trip with our church, and he offered to help with the food. We had hot dogs the night before, something even he could handle. But the next morning as he took his spot in the kitchen, he noticed a tray of gray, wrinkled dogs leftover in the fridge. Not wanting seemingly questionable food to go to waste, he cut those hot dogs up and tossed them into the scrambled eggs. I think that was the only time they ran out of oatmeal on one of those retreats. If nothing else, I can say thank you to him for his lack of culinary prowess. Mom made dang sure none of her sons would follow in his cooking footsteps, and to this day all of her children are excellent cooks.
I cannot speak about my dad without also speaking about LaBelle Electric. He struck out on his own the year before I was born, so I don’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t self-employed. I remember the red bat phone that sat on the corner of the long vinyl booth in our kitchen. It was the business line, and he would get emergency calls on it. Of course I remember learning the trade, taking my place alongside my brothers as the one small enough to climb into a blistering hot attic full of insulation to run romex or help troubleshoot some problem. I hated those evenings afterward dealing with shards of invisible fiberglass in my arms. I have distinct memories of working as his helper watching him read a schematic for a press in a machine shop, his glasses taken off and stowed in the bottom of the electrical panel, and sweat dripping of his nose—I always wondered if that excessive liquid would be a bad thing one day around all that electricity. And I would always be in awe when he figured out the problem, found the parts he needed and got the machine up and running.
Dad exuded generosity. He helped anyone he felt was in need, giving his time, his money, his advice, whatever he could do to help. I heard the story last night of how he helped a waitress at a restaurant he frequented. The waitress was a single mom of four, and her hot water tank had gone out. Dad said he’d take care of it, and the guy he was eating with offered to help too. He bought the new tank and put it in for her. I remember driving with him to a Saturday breakfast that he had with some other men while living in Charlotte. As he got off the highway, there was a homeless man standing there. He rolled down his window and handed him a $20 and then spoke with the man until the light changed. This was a weekly occurrence I came to find out. He did it with us as his children and with countless others, and I know he touched many of you with that generosity as well.
I cannot speak about my father without mentioning his deep faith. In January of 1978 he had a significant conversion experience and dedicated his life to following Jesus. And he made sure that he told anyone and everyone about his faith as well. Subtlety was not his specialty; he was about as delicate as an 800 pound gorilla. If he felt led to share about his faith with you, then, by golly, you were gonna hear it. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if it made me as a priest and believer uncomfortable from time to time, I can only imagine how some of you felt.
But what he may have lacked in tact, he more than made up for with sincerity and goodwill. My dad found in Jesus Christ the way to God, and he wanted everyone he met to experience that too. His hope rested in the words we heard from John’s gospel, that Jesus was going to prepare a place for us. And if he went to prepare a place, he would come back again and take us to himself so that where he is, there we might be also. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, as he told Thomas when he asked about the way to the Father.
I have come to learn that there are some who experience that desire to follow Christ in the way my Dad did, with a whole-hearted immediate change that sparked a fire in him all his days. And I know that there are some who come to the way of Jesus much more tentatively, with questions and doubts, sometimes not even sure that they are walking the way of Jesus. These too eventually find their way to the Father as they look for the way of Christ in the shadows of their life. I personally am glad for all the ways that people experience life-change through Christ, and I know that for many of you my dad truly was the presence of Jesus in your life. Wherever you are on that journey, I hope that my dad’s deep love for Christ will help you in both big and small ways to see God’s presence in your own life.
Was he perfect? Lord, no. Yes, I’m giving his eulogy, but I’m also being honest. And he would from time to time admit the ways he had let us down, and offer his apologies and seek to make things right. He was like any of the other saints out there who try to make their way in this world: complex people with both their good and bad traits desiring to live as faithful followers of the Almighty.
I don’t pretend to know everything about my dad, or to fully comprehend all the decisions he made in his life. It was Ian Morgan Cron in his recent memoir about his father who said it best: “Our parents are mysteries to us. No matter how close we think we are to them, we cannot know the content of their hearts. We don’t know the disappointments, or the scars and regrets that wake them in the night, or the moments for which they wish they could get a do-over. I’m not persuaded we should know them better than that. In our therapeutic age, it’s commonly said that we’re only as sick as our secrets. But there are secrets that we should keep only between God and ourselves. I don’t trust people who tell you everything. They’re usually hiding something.”
In the end, as he journeyed these last months, surely there were secrets between God and him from throughout the course of his life. But as he found his way home, and as my sisters and brothers rallied around him, he found peace. We snatched moments of time with him for a conversation and a kiss, and he told each of us as his children that he was proud of us. That he loved us. That he couldn’t believe all we had done for him throughout his life. And I have to say my thanks to them all, to the ones nearby who gave so much these past months, Gina and Chris, especially, and Berniece as well, and to us who were away and came as we could to support and pray, Lisa and Russ and Rhonda and Laura, thank you. To the next generation, the young and not so young among the grandkids and great-grandkids: He loved you dearly, and he only wants the best for you in your life. I know he would want me to share with you the words he shared with me once when I was just a kid: Whatever you do in your life, be it a ditch digger or a doctor, do it with care and determination and hard work, and know that he will love you no matter what.
I am no longer that five year old wanting to get my own cereal bowl, but I understand it much better now. On that day when I clambered up onto the counter all by myself, he wanted time to stand still, maybe even go back some to cherish the experiences all the more. Now it is I who wants the clock to pause for the opportunity to have another conversation, to steal another hug. To have him for just a bit more time.
It’s an impossible task, of course, what I ask of people when they set out to write eulogies for their parents. What can you say about your father in just a few pages? How do you sum up a life in that short a space of time? I don’t really know. I can only say the words that I’m sure he heard when he met his Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.” And may you both rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
Mark’s gospel is my favorite. I love how it’s so full of immediacy. His characterization of the disciples is helpful for me: they aren’t the brightest tools in the shed, and it’s amazing they ever got it.
But his gospel ending is sometimes hard. No resurrection appearances from Jesus at all. Just the women fleeing in terror and amazement.
Yet there is Easter joy to be found there. Here are my thoughts on the Last of the days of the Holy Triduum.
Easter Day 2012—Mark 16:1-8
It’s meager, isn’t it? The end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard, it’s pretty slim in terms of greatness about the resurrection of Jesus. You did notice, didn’t you, that Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance? You may want something tangible, but Mark leaves it just like that.
The women come to the tomb just after sunup on the first day of the week, and they worry about who will roll away the huge stone. But they find that the work has already been done for them, and then they discover this young man in white inside the tomb. He says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And Mark ends his gospel with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Unsettling to be sure. And if you read it in the Greek, it ends even more abruptly. A word for word literal translation would be: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . . .”
If you read Mark’s last chapter in your own Bible, you will notice that there are some endings added on where Jesus appears. However, these endings will be flagged by some brackets, and a footnote explaining that the earliest manuscripts don’t contain them. It seems that some people along the way got just as concerned by Mark’s seemingly sagging ending and felt the need to prop it up. That’s like the modern day equivalent of creating a Hollywood ending.
We want that too. We want Jesus to appear nearby in the garden, comfort the women, and then they can exclaim resounding joy. But instead we get these women full of terror and amazement running out of the cemetery unable to even speak a word.
If you read Mark as a complete narrative—the way it would have been read in the Early Church—you see that the disciples never get it. They are dim-witted, messing things up, full of uncertainty and doubt about who Jesus is. They miss all the signs. After all of the miracles, the healings, all of the amazing things they saw, they just don’t get it.
In one telling sequence in particular, we watch as Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The disciples collect seven baskets of leftovers. A day or two later, he climbs into a boat with them, but they forgot to pack a lunch—they only have a small loaf of bread to share. He begins teaching them, but they can’t even listen. Instead they keep pointing fingers at one another, accusing each other of forgetting to bring more than a single loaf for their journey. Jesus can’t believe what he is hearing, and asks, “Why are you talking about not having any bread? Don’t you see or understand? Don’t you remember when I broke the seven loaves? When I did, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” “Seven,” they say to him. “Do you not yet understand?” he asks.
They don’t. And at the very end, at his crucifixion, it is the Roman Centurion who gets it when he declares, “Truly this man was God’s son.” The disciples? They had fled the scene much earlier.
And yet, the ones hearing this story read aloud to them—the new believers gathered in a house probably in Rome under the cover of night for fear of their very lives—would have known the stories of what the disciples did after the resurrection. They would have heard about Peter and John and all the rest, how they changed the world and were martyred for their faith. They would have recognized the disciples by name early on in the reading of Mark’s gospel. But these Roman believers would have wondered how the disciples who had lived lives full of faith and courage could have once been so full of doubt and uncertainty. They were probably waiting for the end of the story, assuming that this ragamuffin band of disciples would be amazingly transformed into the super apostles they had heard about. They were probably looking for that Hollywood ending.
Will Willimon, in his book titled, Remember Who You Are: Baptism as a Model for the Christian Life, claims that contrary to popular understanding, the work of baptism is a life long process, not merely a solitary event. Bishop Willimon writes, “No matter how powerful one’s baptism or how soul-shaking one’s … conversion experience, only a lifetime of death and rebirth can work so radical a transformation as God intends for his ‘new creations.’” We have a tendency to think that somehow we can arrive in the claim to being a “good Christian,” and that the journey takes little, if any work. We like to think that the Christian life “is a good way to make nice people even nicer.”
But Willimon writes, “Baptism says that our problem is not that we have a few minor moral adjustments which need to be made in us so that we can be good. Our problem is that we are so utterly enslaved [to sin and the powers of this world] that nothing less than full-scale, lifelong conversion will do.”
That is good news for us. Even though we, like the disciples, keep failing, God continues to work our salvation out in us. God keeps calling out to us and bringing us to full-scale conversion, because above all else God wants us to have fullness of life. God works in and through history in order to offer us salvation, so that our lives can be changed and transformed and so that we can be about the work of God’s kingdom.
At the end of Mark’s gospel, the very last words uttered by a character in this narrative are these: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” These words spoken to the women point to Jesus’ continued work among his disciples. They will see him in Galilee, and the women are told to share this message with the apostles. They seemingly do this, since the message was not snuffed out but continued on, from Galilee through Rome and all the way to Southborough.
These last instructions of Mark’s gospel are for the disciples to return to Galilee, and it is there that they will see Jesus. But who is a disciple? James, and Peter and John and Mary to be sure, but also you and me and those folks sitting in that home church so many years ago. Yes, Galilee is a physical place, but it is also found at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). To put it another way, the narrative isn’t finished. Go back to the beginning, to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and reread Mark’s gospel, this time with fresh eyes, with the eyes of a disciple who has experienced Jesus’ death and passion. Go back and hear again of the miracles and healings, the parables and Jesus’ teaching. Just like the disciples, you didn’t get it the first time around, but like them you will eventually understand since you have experienced what they did. Now that you’ve heard it until the very end—to Jesus’ death and the visit to his empty grave—now you can experience it all again more attentively and be transformed.
You see, in real life there is rarely a Hollywood ending. The difficulties in life don’t end up on the cutting room floor. Rather God takes our doubt, our fear, our inability to fully comprehend all that the Risen Christ can do in our lives, our community and our world — God takes all these and desires to bring about full-scale conversion in us. The beauty and hope and joy of the resurrection is that Jesus Christ has conquered death. Jesus has overcome fear. He has vanquished all that paralyzes us and keeps us from being people who are about the work of his kingdom. The story of his resurrection, the account of his miraculous power, and the narrative of his redemption of this world continues on to this day. The deeds of Jesus Christ of Nazareth never end, and we are given the great joy and responsibility to take our place alongside all those disciples who have gone before us, joining with them in proclaiming the glorious power of Jesus’ resurrection.
There are days in life when the darkness seems almost too much to bear. Tonight is one of those in our faith. As we take our place at the cross, we remember that even though the darkness can overwhelm, it is only in our brokenness that the Spirit can enter into us.
Good Friday — 2012
I try to get out and hike as often as I can, which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like. I came to hiking later in life—I think it was a result of going into the ministry. It was always something I thought about doing, mind you, but I never made the time to do it. When I got to Colorado I began to realize that I needed to hike, to ramble and walk to clear my head. When I didn’t, when I went for stretches of time without stretching my legs and my brain in the crisp air, things suffered—from my relationships with Melissa and my kids to my overall disposition.
I suspect part of this love came from the idea of pilgrimage, the ancient practice of taking a physical journey to a place of spiritual significance in order to find a deeper connection with God. Like walking the Way of St. James across France and Spain some 500 miles to Santiago de Compestella. Or traveling to Canterbury in England, if you remember The Canterbury Tales from college. The pilgrimage became a metaphor for life. It’s certainly become one for my life.
Parker Palmer writes, “In the tradition of pilgrimage, … hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now. In every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts. But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story—every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy—but it is the part of the story most often left untold. When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.”
We gather on this night to remember the darkest moment of our faith. We watch as Christ struggles just to breathe on the cross. We take our place near Mary and the beloved disciple, and try with difficulty to imagine what it would be like to be a parent watching a child die an excruciating death. Church attendance is much lower on Good Friday in comparison to Easter, perhaps because we don’t want to watch the suffering or to push aside the long nights when fear overwhelms us. Yet we all suffer. There are times in each of our lives when we see hardship and pain, and I would agree with Parker Palmer that they are integral to our lives, to our stories. They are fundamental in forming who we are in our world. And who we will be in the story of our lives.
Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it sprouts and grows and reproduces itself many times over. Then he tells us that if we want to hold onto our lives, we’ll lose them. But if we lose our life for his sake, if we delve deep into his love and life at the cost of our own, then we’ll have life forever.
In his book Drops Like Stars, Rob Bell contemplates the connection between suffering and creativity. He writes these words: “The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out that the Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because that’s where they believe the Spirit enters. I can relate to the rugs. I want desperately for things to go ‘how they’re supposed to.’ Which is another way of saying ‘how I want them to,’ which is another way of saying ‘according to my plan.’”
“And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works. But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening again and again. I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find in that place of powerlessness a strength and peace that weren’t there before. I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters.
“The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God. Which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables. But in pain and anguish and death.
“It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own.
“It’s in that place where we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.
“We lose our live, only to find it. It turns out that Navajo rug and a Roman cross have a lot in common.”
We remember that Jesus suffered for us so long ago. And he suffers with us even now as we deal with our own hurts and struggles and pain. We like to pretend that the hardship doesn’t exist, that we have been lucky enough to have missed the suffering that is ever present in our world. And with the pretending we hide behind carefully constructed masks hoping never to let our guard down so those around us won’t know of our hurt. But when we do this, the Spirit cannot come in.
I don’t think we remember enough that the marks Jesus received on that cross stayed with him. The marks in his hands, his feet and his side didn’t magically disappear when he was raised. That’s how the disciples knew it was him the first time they saw him after Easter: he showed them the nail holes in his hands.
The sign of the suffering he endured stayed with him. And stays to this day. If our Lord still bears his marks of pain, why can’t we? Why do we think that somehow we have to be perfect and not impacted by all that comes our way? When will we realize that in the journey of life—in both our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages—we will experience darkness? And even more that the suffering we encounter will shape us?
We have in Jesus a Lord who is not unaware of the pain in this world. Tonight we stand by his cross and gaze upon it, knowing he too will be with us when we are overwhelmed by the crosses of our life. When we fall down on our journeys and feel that all is out of our control, Jesus will be there. Walking beside us. Helping us up again. Aware of our deep pain. It is only in the darkness, in the fragments, in the blemishes of life that the Spirit can enter in to us. Will we allow the Spirit in? I think it’s the only possibility we have to experience resurrection. Amen.