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.
Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. During that evening he gave them a new commandment and an object lesson. Love one another he said. And he got down and washed their feet.
As we reflect on these three holy days of the Christian year, I hope we can hear his new command. And I hope even more we can put it into practice.
My sermon for last night…..
Maundy Thursday 2012
I have strong memories of being in the bath when I was a child, of people helping me get cleaned up. I especially remember my sister Lisa washing my face and neck and then claiming to find potato sprouts in my ears because they were so dirty. One evening like magic she pulled a tuber out of my ear. I loved it when my mom said I could have a bubble bath, and I would play for what seemed like a long time in that tub by myself.
Nowadays I am half tempted to run down to the pantry to rummage through our root vegetables when I am helping Noah or Olivia with their baths, and I often try to give them the option of bubbles. We attend to the ritual of bath time in our house with religious devotion most nights, it’s part of the well trod bedtime routine that we’ve followed with our kids since their infancy, although now I am only called in to wash their hair. I suspect they both will have bath memories of their own in 35 years.
These days bathing is a quick endeavor for me, and given my hair situation, I can be out of the shower in just a few minutes. Anything foreign that accumulates on my body is my own to get rid of. I’m not fussy about working in dirt or anything on my off days, but I like to have clean hands being as I’m a priest and all. My feet rarely get exposed to the outside air unless I’m on vacation and wearing my favorite sandals. Those days while enjoying the outdoors late into the evening, I often find my way to the side of the tub to rinse off the grime of the day, watching it swirl around the drain before going away forever.
Jesus and his disciples were perpetual sandal wearers. Living in an arid land only compounded the amount of dust they would kick up. Dust that clung to sweaty feet. Dirt that would not be welcome in a house. So when Jesus and his disciples would find their way to someone’s home for a meal or to stay, the host would at the very least provide a basin for them to rinse their grungy feet, and often would have a servant wash their feet for them. Hospitality played an important role in their culture, and this small gesture literally dripped with care.
You may remember the story when Jesus came to Simon the Pharisee’s house, and a sinful woman came in weeping over Jesus, using her hair to wipe his feet that had been wetted with her tears, and anointing his feet with fine perfume. Jesus calls Simon out on this a little later after he and others at his table were shocked that Jesus would let such a woman even touch him. He said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Hospitality, care, regard for one another—that’s what Jesus expected.
But it wasn’t just that Jesus expected others to do it for him since he was their rabbi, their teacher. On the night before he died, while eating the evening meal with his disciples, he got up from the table and stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing their feet. I’m sure they were shocked that he would even think of doing this. Their master getting down on his knees before them washing off the day’s accumulated gunk, that was a servant’s work. “No, Jesus!” Peter shouted when Jesus got to him. “No, you won’t wash my feet!” Jesus looked at him gently and told him that if he didn’t then Peter would have no part with him; he couldn’t be his disciple. I get Peter’s objection. I don’t want anyone cleaning my feet except me.
You may remember the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, a sports writer I remember from my growing up in Detroit when he wrote columns for the Free Press. In a moment of coincidence, Mitch saw a Nightline introduction with Ted Koppel saying a few things about life and death, and then saying “Who is Morrie Schwartz? Stay tuned to find out.” Morrie was Mitch’s advisor and favorite professor from college. They hadn’t seen each other in 16 years. And Morrie was dying of Lou Gherig’s disease, ALS. He stayed tuned to be sure.
During that interview, “the two men spoke about the afterlife. They spoke about Morrie’s increasing dependency on other people. He already needed help eating and sitting and moving from place to place. What, Koppel asked, did Morrie dread the most about his slow, insidious decay?” He asked Ted if he can say a word on TV [that I won’t say in church], and Koppel said go ahead. Morrie looked Ted straight in the eyes and said, “Well, Ted, one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe my [butt].”
Mitch reaches out to reconnect with Morrie, and they begin a weekly ritual of meeting in Newton, Mass, where Morrie lives. After a few months of visits, Mitch writes, “Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time. Connie [his aid] would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker. Each time he came back, he looked tired. ‘Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my [butt]?’ he said. I laughed, You don’t forget a moment like that. ‘Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.’ Why? ‘Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.’ Enjoy it? ‘Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.’ That’s a unique way of looking at it. ‘Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts. I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time— and the reason — to do that.’”
I can’t imagine trying to enjoy what Morrie wants to enjoy. I’m with Peter on saying no to Jesus on my feet; the ultimate sign of dependency, no way. And yet.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” That’s the new commandment, the mandatum novum, that we are to take part in. We are called to both show love by caring for each other, and, infinitely more difficult, receive love offered to us.
That’s what we do on this night when we untie our shoes and slip off our socks and pad down that aisle. By both grabbing a towel and washing someone else’s feet and then placing our own feet in the basin, we mark our allegiance to Christ. We acknowledge our utter dependence on God and one another. By this will the world know that we are Jesus’ followers, if we love another.
Tonight it’s just the symbol: foot washing. But I hope that even more we are able to take off the outer layers of the masks we live behind most of the time, and expose our very selves to the outside air and one another. We cannot love or be loved if we do not become vulnerable. We cannot be part of Jesus if we do not open ourselves up and share both the difficult and joyous parts of our lives in community. If we do not love one another. Can we take our side along the disciples? Or will we stay back, afraid of acknowledging our need and dependence of one another and of Jesus?
It’s one of those jokes I throw out there every Lent: yes, you can sign up for the exciting role of Servant Girl 2 in our yearly Passion Reading. Some people prefer those small roles; it means reading only one or two lines in a poorly lit nave like ours. But sometimes those one or two lines can define something pretty significant. There are people that play bit roles in our lives, and so without further adieu…
Palm Sunday 2012—Mark’s Passion
I am struck by the bit-parts that take center stage in our Passion reading each year. The one or two lines spoken by the seemingly insignificant players that we have a tendency to overlook. And yet I know in my own life sometimes it’s the one or two lines from a person I met only briefly that stick with me for a long time. Sometimes these bit-players take a major role.
We heard it this morning. Peter had followed Jesus under the cover of darkness on that cool night to the place where the council had assembled. He stood in the courtyard, warming himself, when one of the servant-girls came by. She took one look at him and recognized him. “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” she says to him. Peter looks at her stunned, recognizing that he might be the next one hauled in to a fake trial. His declarations a few hours before promising that he would never desert Jesus crumble immediately. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.
But he stays there warming his hands over the fire pit, and the servant girl a little later said once more that Peter was one of the Galileans and was with Jesus. He again denies it. One of the bystanders, hearing the words of the servant-girl begins looking suspiciously at Peter, and either because of the twang of his accent or because of his appearance, says, “Certainly you are one of them, you are from Galilee.” Peter began cursing, and swore an oath that he wasn’t, the he had no idea what they were talking about, that he didn’t even know this Jesus of Galilee.
And the rooster crowed. And Peter remembered what Jesus had told him and he ran off.
This is Simon Peter, remember; Peter being the name Jesus himself gave to him. It meant Rocky, and Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel that he would build his church on that rock. But the rock couldn’t even stand up to a bit player, to a servant-girl and a bystander. Never mind if he had the fortitude to stand up to the high priest, he couldn’t even handle questions from someone with no authority, and so he threw Jesus under the bus. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, this Rock that would serve as the foundation of the church.
In 2000, Melissa had an opportunity to travel to Morocco for three weeks through a fellowship from Boston University. I was able to join her for 10 days on that trip. Through the contacts of a friend, Melissa and I were able to stay with a Moroccan national and his family. Abdellah loved showing us the sights and engaging us in conversation—he taught English in a local high school—and we were delighted to have him and his teen-aged son as our guides. Our trip took place in August, and I can say that the Sahara desert in the summer was hot, easily a 115 degrees most days, and some went well above 120.
We often used public transportation to explore the country. In the mornings before we left, Abdellah would pack each of us large one liter water bottles, and he always brought an extra one. Riding next to him on the bus he explained it to us like this: As a Muslim, he said, I am commanded to give a cup of water to anyone who asks for it. Your Holy Book says the same thing. So whenever I travel, I always bring an extra bottle.” Not too long after this, someone got on the bus, visibly thirsty. He saw us drinking water, and asked for a drink. Abdellah handed him the extra bottle.
Later during our time we spoke more about this, and Abdellah, not confrontational but certainly provocative, said, “If America is a Christian nation, how come there are so many homeless people there? I don’t understand how so many Christians ignore the words of your Scripture” He had visited America on a Fullbright exchange, and had seen the homeless in Boston, New York and Washington DC. I remember talking about how many people aren’t really practicing Christians, and that they don’t all take the call of Christ seriously. But then I thought about my own life and the fact that I would never have thought about carrying an extra bottle of water, never mind my inclination to pretend as if the poor and homeless I meet don’t even exist.
I was deserting Jesus by my actions. I might not have said out loud that I wasn’t associated with him, but my actions told a different story.
I’m not sure who the Abdellah or servant girl or passerby is in your life, but I bet you’ve had an encounter with one of those seeming bit-players and will again. They may ask a challenging question, or make a statement that stops you in your tracks: “Do you really believe that stuff about Jesus? I thought you were more intelligent than that.” And then you hem and haw, and stammer out something that makes you appear as to not really care about the way Jesus lived and continues to live in our midst. Or maybe, like me, sometimes you just live your life in a way that exhibits that while you may talk a good game, your actions clearly deny Jesus and his invitation to follow him.
We gather on this day to remember that we all take our part in crucifying our Lord. And even though we desert and deny and disgrace him at times, he still loves us and offers us forgiveness. That is the power of what happened on that cross. That Jesus, even in the midst of horrible suffering, never stopped loving us, no matter what we have done to him. He stretched out those arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that we each might come within the reach of his saving embrace. May we, like Peter, find our way to those outstretched arms. Amen.
Prayer is a funny thing because we pray for the darndest things. Jim Carrey showed us this in “Bruce Almighty” when he says yes to all the prayers he received and 400,000 people hit the lottery. For many of us, we pray, and expect God to do our bidding.
But that’s not how it works. God isn’t just waiting around to do our every whim. So what does this mean about prayer then? How do we become people who pray?
That was my jumping off point for my sermon yesterday. And don’t miss Robert Benson’s fabulous book In Constant Prayer that I mention.
Lent 5B—People Who Pray
We’re on our penultimate Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been making my way through the disciplines encouraged to us by the Prayer Book for a meaningful and solemn Lenten journey. Things like fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture, and self-examination and repentance. The one on that list that I’ve not spoken about yet is prayer. It’s been on my list for a while—I thought I would preach about it 3 weeks ago—but I’ve struggled in what to say.
I’ve got tons of books on prayer, and my own ideas to be sure. But I find that often we think of prayer as a way to use God as some sort of cosmic vending machine—we need a healing from a bruised knee, or for a better paying job or, God help us, a great parking spot or a Red Sox win, so we say a quick petition and expect immediate results. We get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out as we want, and then swear off praying at all.
I wonder about those kinds of prayers because we approach God so casually, as if asking for parking near the door at Staples or Bertucci’s is of God’s concern. I think of that kind of prayer and the ones offered up by the people of this world who don’t have enough to eat, and I know that I don’t have any idea what is really important to God most of the time, or I’d be praying for something else more often.
It’s not to say that God doesn’t hear those prayers, because I think God does and sometimes God even responds. I do this sometimes myself with Noah and Olivia when they ask for a quarter for the gumball machine. But there is so much more to prayer than our petitions for the day in and day out of life, and I think God, while unbelievably patient with us, wants us to grow up sometimes.
When I think about prayer these days, I mean primarily keeping the Daily Office. It’s the regular rhythm of prayer given to us by our Jewish sisters and brothers—the Psalmist writes, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances”—and built upon by the early church and the rise of the monastic life in Christendom. Faithful Christians would make time each day to stop what they were doing and say their prayers, early in the morning, at noontime, at the setting of the sun and before bed. Marking the divine in the ordinary created a perspective for them; it showed them that they needed to praise God through every aspect of their lives. They looked at the life of Jesus and how often the Gospels said that Jesus got up early or went off alone to pray, and they tried to emulate that. Yet even suggesting that we should pray 2 or even 4 times a day is difficult for me because I know how busy life can be.
Robert Benson talks about this in his book, In Constant Prayer, and I’m going to quote him at length because I think he drills this one out of the park. He penned, “W.H. Auden wrote, ‘An artist must develop a strict consciousness in regard to time. For we must never forget that we are living in a state of siege.’ He was not just talk about poets; he was talking about any of us who are trying to live our lives with all the art and love and care we can muster. There is more art in doctoring and schoolteaching and childrearing and all manner of works than most people realize.
“I hate saying this in public, but I am going to. There are a lot of days when I just do not have the time to say the office. You know how busy we men of letters are.
“In the morning I have to write in my journal and write my six hundred words in whatever new project I am working on. If I do not write in my journal, I forget what has been happening to me. Which is bad enough in and of itself, but it is especially difficult for a guy who makes a living telling stories. If I don’t remember my stories, then I have nothing to write the six hundred words about. Eventually I have nothing to write a book about either.
“Then I have to get in the car and pick up the day’s papers. Then I have to work the crossword. Then I have to do my other writer’s work for a while. I have to edit some stuff in the book that I am trying to make something out of from the stuff I ended up with before. I have telephone calls to make and errands to run and letters to write. Sometimes I even have a meeting.”
Benson continues, “I do have time to take a swim so I can keep my schoolgirl figure. I seem to be able to make tee times and play a round of golf. I have to play golf every week. Have to is a relative term, of course, but if you play golf, then you know that ‘have to play golf’ is the proper way to say it. Even if you just live with a golfer, you know that have to is the proper term. And the way I play golf, it can take some considerable amount of time to play. …
“I have to eat supper. I have to help clean up the kitchen—okay, I do not have to, but the brownie points that accrue to husbands who cook and clean up, not to mention do the laundry and yard work, are just too good to pass up.
“And did I mention that little armchair in our front parlor, where I like to sit in the evenings? Or that I have to go to bed pretty early, because I get up pretty early. And I have to read for a while before I go to sleep, sometimes for a very long while.
“Most days, if it comes right down to it, I simply do not have the time to say the office.
“And I am fully aware that by most standards my life is not even busy. … Why do I not say my prayers? Well, it takes too much time.”
He concludes, “ ‘How we spend our days is how spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘What we are doing with this one and with that one is what we are doing.’
“Time is the real currency of our age, and we have to manage our time in relation to our spiritual life as much as we do in relation to any other part of our lives.
“Our hearts are where our treasure is, or so we have been told. Our love is where our time goes too. Including the time that some of us say we do not have enough of to spare some to participate in the ancient prayer of God’s faithful.’”
We are seemingly too busy to pray without realizing that we are, as Bill Hybels put it, too busy not to pray.
And it all comes of intentionality. Do we want to be people who pray, people who enter into the living God to give thanks for the gift of life itself, or do we consider it much too hard to even bother? We easily put our mind to other tasks out there—for example, I want to climb all 48 of the 4000 foot peaks in the White Mountains in the next 4 years, and I have 44 to go, if you’re keeping score at home—and we could, if we desired to, be people who pray on a regular basis. But we have to want to.
You may not know how to pray the Daily Office or where to start. I’ve posted on my blog a cheat sheet and directions for you to do this. If you can’t figure out how to get to my blog or have trouble, let me know and I’ll send you the information you would need or meet with you to guide you through this.
If we are going to be people who faithfully participate in the life of prayer God wants for us, then we need to make the time. We need to make prayer one of the items—or 2 or 4 of the items—on our to-do list. If we yearn to draw closer to God and spend our lives in connection with the true, holy and living One, then we must set our sights on the goal to say our prayers daily. I hope that we will do this, both individually and corporately, and that we will be people who regularly structure our lives with a “continued awareness of God’s presence and reality.” I hope and trust that we can be known as people who pray and drink long from the well that God offers to us. May it be so. Amen.
 Excerpted from Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer. 2008. Pgs. 85-88.
You can find quite a few shelves at your local Barnes and Noble devoted to Bibles. It’s normally cited as the most printed book of all time (records are hard to verify, though, due to sales figures of all the different types, never mind the Gideon freebies). Yet we don’t read the Bible.
So we own Bibles, lots of them — as a priest I’ve got easily a dozen around my study and home—and don’t crack them open. Or we do crack them open and point to a passage thinking it will answer life’s hardest questions. That’s Bible as Magic 8 Ball.
But I would argue that we should bother reading the Bible on a regular basis not so we can argue if it is literally true, rather so we can hear and see and inwardly digest how God moves in our world. That was the basis for my sermon on Sunday using John 3:14-21 as a jumping point.
I have always loved words, and especially the way that words could open up stories for me. I could travel to far off places, or meet characters that took risks. I loved learning about new things in adventures or mysteries, and especially stories that gripped me with detail. Stories get into our lives—I know that I can have my mood impacted by a novel I am reading—and they can shape how we think about the world.
Words are important. And so when we are encouraged to read on meditate on God’s Holy Word during this season of Lent, I find it all very comforting. We are being encouraged to read and hear the stories of our faith again in a new way and to think about the plots and characters and words given to us in Scripture.
It is no secret of course that many of us do not read scripture with any regularity. And this is true even though the Bible likely has over a billion copies in print—more than any other book—with many of those copies in seemingly perfect condition. As George Gallup Jr. put it, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.” A Barna study goes further, “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.” We do not know the stories of our faith either because we think the don’t add much if any value to our lives or because we think we know it all already.
I’m not one to pile on a bunch of guilt to make you do something I think we all should be doing, in this case reading scripture. I’ve been around long enough as a priest to recognize that guilt leads to issues down the road, so this morning I’m taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook. You did catch it, didn’t you? Jesus, in the passage from John we read today, says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus came to offer us light and love, not condemnation or conviction. I think Jesus didn’t want us to be bogged down by shame and guilt, but he wanted to instead point the way toward the best life that he wants all of us to have.
And I think the basis of that life can be found in scripture. The Bible gets a bad rap these days because some try to use it as a club to get others into agreement about one issue or another. Verses are pulled out willy-nilly—and often out of context—to make a point (this is called proof-texting, by the way). Instead, I think that scripture is one big narrative to show us how God has interacted with human history in the past and how God wants to interact with us. The point of this story is quite simple: God began the world with the intention that we have abundant life. We messed this up, and God has been working to restore us and all humanity to the place where it will be just like God had always intended it to be. Abundant life.
So that’s why we should read God’s word, to hear the stories, to think about what they mean, to see if they can relate to our world today. To recognize above all else that God loves us, and that in the end, love wins. But we don’t read because we think we know it already. Most people don’t realize, however, that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (seriously, read Genesis 1 and then Genesis 2, they are very different, including the order in which things get made). Many don’t notice that Jesus’ birth in Luke with the shepherds and stable and singing angels is nothing like Matthew with the Magi and the home that Jesus lived in with his parents. But because we “know” these stories like the back of our hands, we don’t bother to pick up the Bible.
One of my favorite biblical accounts is that of Joseph, the son of Jacob. He was the one that got the special coat from his father and was quite a dreamer, all of which really annoyed his 10 older brothers. They were jealous of him because he was dad’s favorite, and so they sold him to some traders heading down to Egypt telling dad he was killed by a fierce wild beast. What I like about Joseph is that he didn’t stop being who he was even though he was sold into slavery. He maintained his integrity through thick and thin. He became a powerful man in his master’s house, lost it all due to the scheming of another person, and even though he was thrown into prison, never stopped living his life with integrity. After a number of years in prison where he had became a leader among the inmates and well respected by the guards, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt behind only the Pharaoh.
He ends up confronting his brothers while offering redemption to them when they come to Egypt looking for food during a seven year drought. Joseph stayed true to his faith and his family throughout his entire life.
Maybe it’s not Joseph so much for you, as the conversion and life of St. Paul. Early in his life he attacked Christians, putting them to death. On a single day he had a massive conversion experience, changing his ways forever, and then after some time he became the apostle who shared the message of Jesus with the Gentile world. Or maybe it’s Peter you resonate with, the disciple who was always taking 3 steps forward and then 2 steps back. He says Jesus is the Christ, then he tells him that he didn’t need to die which got him a stern rebuke from Jesus. Peter just bumbles along in his faith it seems, often speaking without thinking.
I mention these three—and there are hundreds more, like Ruth or Esther, Joshua or David—to show you that the Bible is full of these stories of people with virtues and vices just like us (we know about Noah’s ark, we don’t know about his love for wine which was not a good thing). But we won’t know these stories if we don’t read them. God worked in and among ordinary human beings and we’ve been handed all the details of these interactions with the one overarching theme: God wants to bring redemption to the world.
And God wants to bring redemption to us. One of the ways God does that is through our reading and meditating on Scripture.
Eugene Peterson writes about the importance of reading Scripture in his publication titled Eat this Book. He says this, “What I mean to insist upon is that spiritual writing… requires spiritual reading, a reading that honors words as holy, words as a basic means of forming an intricate web of relationships between God and the human, between all things visible and invisible. There is only one way of reading that is congruent with our Holy Scriptures, writing that trusts in the power of words to penetrate our lives and create truth and beauty and goodness, writing that requires a reader who … ‘does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and it’s meaning spreads through his blood.’” God’s word getting into you and changing you.
That’s the point, by the way. That eventually God’s story becomes your story. That you get to a point where your reading the Bible turns into the Bible reading you.
If you’ve never picked up the Bible to read it on a regular—even daily—basis, I’d suggest you begin with the Gospel of Mark. If you don’t know where to find it, look in the table of contents under the New Testament. Let the stories of Jesus interaction in the world around him wash over you. If you’ve read Mark and want something else, try either the letter of First John near the end of the Bible or Philippians (an epistle written by Paul). Give yourself ample time to lean back and close your eyes and really think about what is said, allowing the power of God’s word to enter into you.
When you make time to do this, I know that God will move in your life. You will become more and more people who choose light over darkness, who begin to see how God wants to bring redemption to you and your story. God can do this if we open ourselves up to the fullness of God’s love. “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved by him.” May we experience God’s salvation in our lives this Lent, and may we draw ever closer to the one who longs to become our story. Amen.
Here’s the second sermon in my Lenten series. This one is one fasting and self-denial. Without further adieu…
Lent 2B — March 8, 2009
One of my favorite prayers of the Book of Common Prayer is the one designated for Fridays for the morning office. It includes the lines “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” I appreciate the weekly reminder that we are walking in the way of the cross, and that it can be for us the way of life and peace. But there are times, of course, when I wonder if I fully grasp the meaning of those lines as well; I wonder if I comprehend the call we all have to follow Christ.
This is certainly where this call begins. It wasn’t too long ago in our readings that Jesus, following the temptation we read about last week, began calling his disciples. He simply says to them, “Follow me,” and they do. They do not stop and ask for logistics, or where he is headed or what it will cost them in terms of time or energy or whatnot. He invites them to follow him, and they do.
Along they way, they learn more and more what it means to follow him. They see him heal the sick, and cast out demons, and feed the hungry. And finally, just before our reading today, he asks if they understand who he is, if they get it. Peter’s the one who tells Jesus that he is the Messiah. For many in that day, and for Peter too, the Messiah was someone who would overthrow the occupation of the Romans. The Messiah was the one who would bring about the reestablishment of David’s kingdom.
Once Peter makes this declaration, Jesus begins to tell them explicitly that his is the way of suffering. That if they were looking for an earthly king, they got it wrong, because he was going to be executed. And Peter, having his hopes on the Messiah who would bring earthly freedom begins telling Jesus that somehow he had gotten it all wrong, and that he wasn’t meant to die at all, that what he was saying was impossible.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, of course. He goes on to say to those gathered around them that not only would he die, but if they wanted to be his followers, they would also need to deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him. That if they were after saving their own skin, well they couldn’t be his disciples. And if you really wanted to save your life, then you would certainly have to lose it.
This was the fine print missing early on when they were called to follow Jesus. His way was the way of the cross.
Let’s be clear about one thing at this point: picking up our crosses doesn’t mean enduring the hardships common to humanity in general. I often hear people say, “Well, this is the cross I have to bear” when they are talking about difficulty dealing with an annoying family member, or about an illness they’ve contracted. Poverty and disease usually don’t care if you are a Christian or not. The cross Jesus is talking about is the one that comes from following him, the one that is a result of being a disciple of Christ.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to partake in fasting and self-denial during the 40 days of Lent. These are some of the most misunderstood aspects of our Lenten journey. We think that if we can somehow just forgo chocolate for these 6 weeks that we are making spiritual strides. Yet giving up chocolate isn’t really what this is about, especially if we do it just to show that we somehow have some willpower.
This year I am joining with some others here at St. Mark’s and many around the country how are eating more simply this Lent in solidarity with the poor. Many in our world don’t have access to clean water, let alone enough food to eat. And yet we have an unbelievable choice of foods that we have access to each day. Have you ever stopped and thought about the chip aisle at Stop and Shop? We’ve got a whole row dedicated to snack foods, and we somehow think that this is not only normal, but our right as Americans. By intentionally eating more simply, I recognize that many in our world don’t have these choices and that I can give away the money I might normally spend on foods of all kinds to worthy organizations seeking to alleviate those who face hunger and water issues every day.
Self-denial, and following Christ on his path to suffering is difficult, demanding and harrowing. Especially in light of a culture that often tells us to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we are comfortable and getting what we want. If difficulty strikes—when it rains on the just and the unjust—we look for comfort. And when it is sunny out, we often do the same thing. But Jesus tells us that following him will have a cost, and that cost is our lives.
I am utterly convinced that the prayer I mentioned earlier is true: the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. There is an irony in this, to be sure, because as Jesus declares, if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it and if you lose your life for his sake and the sake of the gospel, then you’ll end up saving it. If life and peace are to come from self-denial, how do we go about this?
Jesus himself asks the question this way, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
A pastor tells the story of a parishioner who came to see him because he was troubled by what he saw in his workplace. This man watched as the boss he worked for promoted some people and did not promote others based on the color of their skin. His boss would often overlook people who were better qualified than the ones promoted. He felt that he needed to say something about this. This pastor advised him to carefully see if he could find some other employees to support him, and then to gingerly and gently approach his boss. He finally did approach this man, and within one month’s time he was fired without cause. This man was unable to get a job for over a year’s time due to his boss’ poor reference of him, and the job he finally got paid less than he had originally been making. He picked up his cross.
You may be saying, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that was that guy’s decision to do that,” and you may be completing that sentence by thinking, “And I wouldn’t be that stupid.” Yet notice that Jesus’ words are pretty direct. “If you want to be my follower, you need to deny yourself and pick up your cross.” In other words, the suffering and self-denial part is not optional. Put even more concise, following Jesus leads to the death of self.
I think that is really what fasting and self-denial remind us: that we are not in control, God is. God desires for there to be justice for all of us who live on this earth, be it in relation to food or in how people are treated or if they can get adequate housing or health care. If God has blessed us (and I think God has quite a bit for many of us) how do we share that blessing with others? How do we share in the way of life Jesus promoted through his ministry?
During this holy and solemn season of Lent, can we, with the help of Jesus Christ, more intentionally take up our cross to follow him? Can we recognize that it is far better to lose our life and those things our culture tells us are so important, in order to gain our souls? And can we trust that when we follow Jesus on the way of the cross we will find it none other than the way of life and peace?
 Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol 37, No. 1, Year B, 44.