Friday, April 27, 2012

Habitat for Humanity Benefit Dinner:
an Invocation

Heavenly Father, gracious God: 

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you make it possible for us to find our lasting home in you.  We thank you for this surprising and unexpected gift.  We thank you also for the invitation to share the love you have given us with one another: we thank you especially for the good work of Habitat for Humanity in San Patricio County, building houses for those who need them, and we pray that we who are a part of this work may always be rooted in the love by which you have prepared a home for all people; we ask that we might serve one another with humility and joy. 

Lord God, bless the families this outreach serves, bless those who give tirelessly of themselves for its success, and bless all of us who are gathered here tonight to celebrate and continue this good work.  Bless our food, our friendships, and our evening.

We thank you, Lord; we love you.  And we pray these things in the Name of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. 



Monday, April 23, 2012

Inquirers' Class Notes #2

Hey, friends!  Notes from the second in our 4 week Inquirers' Class at St C's.  We began, as always, with introductions and uncommon questions.  Our 2 uncommon question for this week were:

1) What is the farthest you've ever been from Portland/Corpus Christi?
2) What is a nickname you willingly answered to at one time?

We each answered one or both.  (This might have been the best part of class.)

Then we picked up a thread of questions from last week's class.  Specifically, we talking about the nature of communion with other churches.  We reviewed the 4 essentials to communion as listed in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, then discussed that communion today is more complicated than simply deciding that we won't build a church in Portland because the Lutherans (with whom we are in communion) already have a church here (which is how communion used to work).  Communion does not work like that in this instance because the two churches only came to be in communion after the two churches were built.  To the good question "Why don't we merge?" we cited pastoral sensitivity and significant connections to holy spaces.  We noted, though, that communion need not be "on" or "off"; that we can grow our relationship with other churches slowly, just like we might in a one on one relationship.  Examples of this include our ecumenical Taize service, our VBS partnership, and our forthcoming ecumenical National Day of Prayer service.

We then watched this video, which is about a quarterly commitment that three churches make in a small town in Indiana to Jesus' desire to see his Church visibly united:

The rest of the class was devoted to a brief overview of the Book of Common Prayer.  We especially noted:
  • The centrality of baptism, whose meaning is linked to the Easter Vigil service.  We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • We noted that the current prayer book format mirrors the ancient rite of initiation in the early Church, whereby candidates for baptism were equipped over a season of preparation with prayers, creeds, etc. for use in the life of the baptized.  We also noted that those items listed before baptism are examples of the abundance of things various denominations might share with one another, without objection from either side - like prayer.
  • We briefly reviewed the whole of the contents of the prayer book but mostly kept to a discussion about each items position relative to baptism and how this shapes the Church.  Next week we will explore the two great sacraments and other sacramental rites in a hands-on, lab-type setting.

Though we did not go into the history and evolution of the prayer book, some might find these additional handouts helpful:

Waldo, Jesus, and All Things Hiding

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

There’s this cartoon making the rounds these days in which a woman has just opened the front door of her home where she discovers two neatly dressed gentlemen with white shirts and black ties, presumably door-to-door missionaries of the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness persuasion.  The woman has opened the door to them, they stand there, the three of them, the woman and these two men, in the doorway of her house when one of the men asks the woman a question, “Ma’am, have you found Jesus?”  The punchline doesn’t become evident until the reader notices a bit of robe and sandal, the hidden profile of a darkened figure, peeking out from behind the woman’s flowing set of living room curtains, some distance behind her.  Apparently, Jesus was out on the lam and had taken up residence in this woman’s home.

Have you found Jesus?

On one level, this question feels distinctively Evangelical.  That is, it belongs to a certain brand or flavor of Christianity.  Not all Christians are comfortable talking this way.  But on another level, the question “Have you found Jesus?” belongs to all of us, every one of us.  One of the petitions in the Prayers of the People, Form II, asks us to pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him.”  For all who seek God, for all who are looking for Jesus, like the woman in the cartoon. 

When I hear that prayer petition, I often wonder: will I ever not seek a deeper knowledge of God?  I say this without belittling the relationship I have with him.  But who among us does not yearn to grow deeper in the love of the One who has loved us to the cross and beyond it?  A deeper knowledge of him...  In this life, at least, this prayer keeps me from complacency. 

As an aside, one of the challenges for Protestant Christians, I think, is to affirm the certainty of salvation alongside and next to an abiding thirst to go deeper.  One man confidently told his friend, “I don’t know about you, but I know where I’m going!”  Somehow this man’s assurance had become an arrogance doing violence to the charity, the love, of the Gospel.  But in the life of faith, the terms are not simply on/off, in/out, safe/not safe, but “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” “marked as Christ’s own,” “a good start, holy entrance, into a relationship of breadth and depth as we pray to dwell in him and he in us.”

We are always seeking, I suppose.

Have you found Jesus? 

It’s something to think about: the way the Christian life takes on the shape of hide and seek.  We are always seeking, and this can save us from complacency; but if we are not careful, it can also lead us to feelings of inadequacy or despair.  As in, always seeking, never finding.  The same inner urge that leads us rightly to surmise that we haven’t yet arrived might also tempt us to believe that we are not enough.  So if we think of ourselves as always seeking God, we confess that some days we feel like small children, with a daunting illustration of “Where’s Waldo” before us, desperately looking for the pointy hat. 

Why can’t we find the dagggum hat? 

What on earth is wrong with me?

Maybe you know other Christians or friends for whom they only wish they could have found Christ hiding behind the living room curtain.  But, for them, finding Jesus hasn’t proven that easy.  Despite long hours in silence, prayer has not come naturally for them.  Despite sleepless nights and anguished cries, your friend feels like heaven’s door for her is closed.  Like she’s talking to herself and so she sometimes makes up reasons, excuses, she blames herself, in order to protect God from her doubts.  Your friend may have begun believing that there is something spiritually defective in her that prevents her from finding God.  Like God would make himself more accessible if she could get her act together.

Our Gospel today comes to gently challenge those who, in despair of finding God, have turned to the false medicine of self-hate. (1)

For the third straight week, beginning with Easter Sunday itself, the Gospel has spoken a story about people who are no good at hide and seek with God.  People who have sought God and failed.  And these people are not just any people - these people are Jesus’ very good friends.  They didn’t believe when they heard it, but even when Jesus appears before them, they cannot escape their terror, fear, and doubt.  In attempt to satisfy their fears, Jesus eats fish.  This isn’t a ghost or hallucination or the result of their having eaten spoiled anchovies on last night’s pizza.  And yet all through the gospels, as the risen Jesus returns to his friends, we find some version of what appears in Matthew’s gospel, wherein “the disciples worshiped him, but some doubted.”  We sometimes tell ourselves that the life of faith would be easier if he would just come to us like he came to Thomas and the rest, but lessons like today’s lesson challenge that belief.  In today’s lesson, Jesus appears to and eats with his friends, and some of them walk away at the end of the story as fearful as when it started. 

But lest we get as caught up on the disciples’ failings as we get caught up on our own, let me name here the gentle challenge that these gospels mean to speak to those who, in despair of finding God, have turned to the false medicine of self-hate, and this is the gentle challenge, the main point that the gospel is making about the disciples: failures or not, Jesus has come to them.  That’s the main point.

Jesus has come to them.

Love does not wait for them to get their act together.  Love makes no condition for his appearing.  Even when he stands before them and they fail to recognize him, their failure isn’t final, but instead becomes the starting point, the next new beginning, for the forgiveness, the mercy, and loving-kindness of God, as he patiently points back to the Scriptures, interpreting them for his friends, revealing himself to his friends.  Breaking bread, eating with them.  Despite their shortcomings, blind-spots, and fears, he comes to them anyway - because he loves them.  And with the tenderness of a mother gently waking her children, he lovingly opens their eyes.

As it turns out, the life of faith is hide and seek, but the strange, good, glorious news of Easter and the Gospel is that we are the ones hiding and Christ is the One seeking.  Unrelentingly seeking.  And this Good News makes faith so much more than a hat to find on Waldo or a riddle to be solved or a task to be performed, to get just right.  Faith takes the shape of a love song not from you but sung to you from the lips of the One who is head over heels for you and won’t let you go.  This is the Good News of Easter.  If Jesus seems hard to find, before you give up, look closer - nearer than the distant hills on which you’ve kept your gaze till now.  His love requires a portrait and not a landscape lens.  You need to know that you are beloved of God, and that his heart seeks you.

The revelation that faith is at least as much about Jesus finding me as my finding him inspired one anonymous poet to craft the hymn we know as #689 in The Hymnal 1982.  I share it with you by way of closing:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; it was not I that found O Savior true; no, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea; ‘twas not so much that I on thee took hold, as thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but oh the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee; for thou wert long beforehand with my soul, always thou lovest me.

So come, come one more time to the table that the Lord who sought you has also prepared for you.  Break the bread, drink the cup.  One more time, let him open your eyes.  Be found again, alive in the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.


(1) And superstition, which is the belief that getting the act together would compel God to show up.  But that takes as a little far afield from our main thrust here.

Sermon preached April 23, 2012, at St Christopher's by-the-Sea

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Definition of Insanity is Broken:
Thoughts on Church Growth and Mission

If you are a church-goer, you have probably heard some version of the following from the acerbic tongue of a Church growth leader at one point or another:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." 
 "If you do what you always do, you'll get what you have always gotten."

The words are compelling.  The former is even said to have come from Albert Einstein!  The problem is that both of the quotes are empirically false.  Worse, the effect of these quotations and others like them - ironically - is to confuse the Church into positions of deeper and deeper entrenchment with respect to the status quo.  How so?

By all accounts - and on the whole - the Church is in decline.  By definition, decline means that the Church is getting different results; we are not getting what we have always gotten.  If the above statements are true, decline can only be seen as the result of unwarranted departure from the tried and true ways of the past, be they perceived departures from orthodoxy or more mundane day-to-day routines.  Though I am not among them, you will find plenty of present day Christians who are glad to make exactly this case.

Never mind that the more mundane the detail attached to decline the more the case for causal decline begins to feel like superstition, the basic premise remains plausible because the Church is unarguably in decline.  The Church, by standard measures, has seen brighter days.  Church leaders who forget the long-view, or who fall in love so deeply with their Utopian vision of a necessarily future Church (a kind of naive progressivism), ironically find themselves sharing an intellectual raft, so to speak - that is, using the very same logical lines - as the people they decry, the ones who have "always done it this way," the ones who wonder what of their legacy the rest of us have failed to sufficiently grasp, such that we are not now getting what we have "always" gotten.

By appealing to quotes like the above, I believe Church growth leaders over-simply the case for change in such a way as to polarize themselves against people who believe that what they are saying is true.

If another way out of the dilemma must be found, this one seems good enough for me: that the above two quotations are not true.

The clearest challenges to the absolutist "continue to do X, continue to get Y" mindset come from science and economics.  For example, science has taught us that doing the same thing over and over again is not enough to contain a virus.  Eventually, the virus will evolve, mutate, or change such that the current treatment is no longer sufficient.  Many times, the virus will be made stronger by virtue of the adaptation that the treatment necessitated for the continued spread of the virus.  Moreover, the next new treatment will be subject to the same window of limited effectiveness.  Unless the "thing" we are doing is "constantly and rigorously adapt, change, account for unexpected shifts, and learn", we will indeed get very different results from doing the same thing - as dramatically different as life and death.

The second example, borrowed from economics, is the principle of diminishing returns.  Diminishing returns refers to the dynamic whereby each unit of input produces less per unit (or marginal) output than the unit of input before it was able to produce.  Thus, for example, the argument for forty-hour workweeks.  This is why you see the greatest changes early on when beginning a new exercise regiment.  The benefits taper off.  While it is important to note that diminishing returns still produce returns - that is, net gains - there are many instances in which the graph does more than taper off, and the returns on a constant input become negative overall.

I will leave it to future posts to offer a more fulsome alternative vision for change.  I will rely heavily on Lesslie Newbigin and his writing on the Church's mission when I get to that post.  In the meantime, this becomes a case study on the old, old story of extremes assuming the same foundations.  Hopefully, the study can shape the current conversations for change in ways that improvise from the tradition because they have received their training in the tradition, and acknowledge with gratitude where and how they do so.  Oversimplifying the case for the future runs the strong risk of disparaging the past, while forfeiting the compelling, living claims for change animated by the Spirit of God, with eyes and hearts fixed on the most important things, and pursuing those things with love.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What Inquirers Are Asking, Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about WordleWordle is a free online program into which the user inputs a large amount of text (say a sermon or letter, for example); the program outputs a visual synthesis of the text, where key words appear in size and centrality in proportion to their emphasis, frequency, and centrality in the inputted text. 

I especially appreciate Wordle's ability to quickly identify key themes and a kind of bird's eye view of the simple contours of a given text.

So as I considered the questions produced by week one participants of our inquirers class (see the questions here), I grew excited at the prospect of the simple bird's eye view.  If you haven't checked out the questions, do skim them first.  Then proceed below to what is an insightful pulse of at least one group of the faithful in the Kingdom of God.

I count myself blessed and privileged to be in conversation with this group about these things.

Click the image to enlarge

What Inquirers Are Asking

Baptism: What is its significance in achieving eternal salvation?

Explain: immersion, holy water.  What is holy water?

What are the "parts" of the Church called?

When did the "ritual" of the Mass start?

What about the crusades - what with all the killings?

Why do we strip the altar?

What do you want from me?

Can you give us a list of the other denominations that believe the "same" ways?

Who makes the decisions about which other denominations that believe the same we would incorporate or join with?  Does the congregation have a say in this decision making?

What about commitment to your own church?  How does that happen if members all believe the same as other denominations?

How do you make your church stronger?

What miracles have you witnessed that even an atheist would regard as the real thing?

Does God desire unity of his church?

Does [unity] take priority over non-essential doctrine?

Why don't we just merge with the Catholic Church?  (Not saying we should.)

I was brought up making the sign of the cross.  Therefore, I always make it.

[Is there] something specific that ought to be said when taking Communion?  (Amen?)

Wafer into hand or mouth (like the Catholics)?

Why baptize babies?  Why not wait?

Monday, April 16, 2012

St C's Inquirer's Class, Notes #1

Last Sunday, we began a 4 week Inquirers' Class at St C's.  I am posting notes for 1) the people who be joining us late next week, 2) the regulars who would like the resources all in one place, and 3) the curious people who are just short of being curious enough to come.

In session #1, we introduced ourselves (name and what one song you would want on a desert island), and we took a couple of minutes to write down questions we hoped the class would address.  In order to encourage even simple, honest questions, I shared the following video by Father Matthew Moretz about the sign of the cross, how to do it, and why.

Then we named the three goals of the course, which you can read on the handout (below), before getting to the meat and potatoes of the four weeks: the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  (Exciting, I know.)  Far from being a document with an imposing title, we discussed that this is really two city names and four points.  Moreover, we observed that these four points are what Anglicans have traditionally understood as being at the heart of the faith we have received.  We read the document through, observing its foundation in Jesus' prayer in John's gospel, and pausing between paragraphs to ask and answer questions.

Finally, I read the group's questions back to the group and left the group with this homework: Counting the prayer book as ending just before the psalms (which are not original to the Book of Common Prayer), what is at the center of the BCP?

We'll pick up there next Sunday!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Terrifying Good News
(an Easter homily)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Praise God!  It’s good to see you.  Good to be gathered together like this.  Family and strangers and good friends next to awkward acquaintances.  All together.  All in praise.  Singing Christ is alive!  Alleluia! 

So this pastor is making a visit to a dear parishioner of his parish, become homebound.  “Door’s open” she hollers, as he knocks on the door, and he comes in, finds a seat on the couch near her reclining chair.  He’s brought the blessed sacrament, but they spend some time on the front end just catching up.  As they begin to talk, he spies a bowl of almonds on the table.  He skipped lunch that day to make time for the visit, and his stomach feels like it’s about to growl and give him away.  He helps himself to an almond.  She talks.  He listens.  He talks.  She talks again, and all the while he’s eating almonds.  By the end of the visit, he looks at the bowl and, in embarrassment, tells her, “I’m so sorry, I seem to have eaten through your entire bowl of almonds.”  “No, no, father, don’t be sorry,” she says.  “I’d already sucked all the chocolate off of them anyway.”

This to me is a picture of Easter.  Easter, the time of eggs and parties, bright dresses and flowers and bunnies.  God help us, the bunnies.  But just what is left when the chocolate’s sucked off?

Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, become a teacher, calling disciples, surrounded by friends, breaking bread and wine with his friends, become a cult hero among the crowd who thought he would bring holy war, become a threat to the religious and political establishment who feared he would bring holy war, then killed on Good Friday.  Today, raised by God.  This is the strange and marvelous story of Holy Week.

This is our story with the chocolate sucked off. 

What do we do with this story? 

This morning I want to say that it is okay if you don’t know what to do with this Easter, the chocolate-less Easter.  It’s fine to not know what it means.  In fact, as a priest and preacher going on six years now in God’s Church, I think that to not know may be the only honest thing a person can do.

Now, some will say I’m over-thinking the matter, that the meaning and message of Easter is obvious and clear: He is risen!  Alleluia!  And that’s right.  Let us sing the praises loud and gladly.  Let joy abound.  Let’s make up for forty days’ lost time and say it over and over again: Alleluia!  He is risen.  Easter need not be more complicated than that.

Yet, but, and...  We turn to our gospel today.  Consider the uncertain picture:

Mary and Mary and Salome have made their way to the tomb.  It’s early yet, but the Sabbath is over so the law allows them to anoint Jesus’ body properly.  They fuss on the way about who will move the large stone from the tomb, but when they arrive, the tomb is already open, the stone rolled away.  Like coming home from vacation and finding the back door unlocked.  More than that, there’s someone inside: a young man.  The Good News of Easter begins with all the joy and gladness of an unexpected late night visitor discovered in your house, rifling through the fridge.  These women are panicked.  They are terrified.

It gets worse: the young man fails in his attempt to comfort the women.  “Be not alarmed.”  You can imagine, catching a strange man in a place as intimate as this, in the early morning hours, and he calmly turns to you and says that: “Be not alarmed.”  This is a tomb!  This looks like grave robbery.  This is desecration of the holy, disrespect for the dead!  “Do not be alarmed,” he says.  “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look around, see for yourself.  Go, tell the disciples and Peter...”  Go, tell, he tells them.  And...

You would think that if the meaning of Easter were obvious and clear, the women would have gone and told.  Instead, we’re told that they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Later, they briefly tell Peter.  Let me ask you: How do you briefly tell Peter the news that the man he called the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the man he betrayed is alive, that he’s risen?  But they manage to tell him briefly, like an older parent manages to tell a concerned child he’s going in to have some tests run.  They manage to slip it in.  They tell the disciples briefly, we’re told.

“Oh by the way...”

It isn’t until Jesus himself meets them and sends them that they go, tell, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

An empty tomb is not enough.  Jesus himself must meet them.  Just as he must meet each of us.  And so we gather in the place where he promises to meet us, and we await the risen Lord.

It’s okay not to know what comes next, after Easter.  Okay if you don’t know what to do with it.  Indeed, if you told someone the story: that God was born in the flesh, as one of us, that he lived and taught and challenged those in power, that he was welcomed to Jerusalem as a king and, less than a week later, was crucified on a cross, and that after three days he was raised from the dead and appeared to his friends...If you told that story to a stranger and she nodded her head at each point, “yes, yes, very good, I understand, yes,” you might rightly think she wasn’t listening to you!  Today is not the day of ordinary common sense, but of the impossible possibility come alive.

The story of God become flesh, incarnate, and killed, then risen from the dead isn’t supposed to make obvious sense.  But it means to get our attention.  It’s supposed to surprise us.  To jar us.  To make us say, “Come again?”  The story of God become flesh, incarnate, killed, risen from the dead is supposed to leave us with the distinct and clear impression that we don’t know it all - that we are not as in control of our lives or this universe as we’d like to believe, that the story is not up to us, that in fact it might not belong to us, that in the mystery called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are dealing with what CS Lewis famously called “not a tame lion.”

When we grow too comfortable with the story, when we catch ourselves beginning to presume upon the story - like it must be this way, like God didn’t choose this way on his own - we risk losing sight of God’s outrageous act for us:

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets at it this way:

"Good Friday (the day Jesus is crucified) is not the darkness that necessarily must give way to light. Nor is it the winter sleep or hibernation that stores and nurtures the germ of life. Rather, it is the day when the incarnate God, incarnate love, is killed by human beings who want to be gods themselves.  It is the day when the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, really dies - of his own will and yet as a result of human guilt, and no germ of life is spared in him such that his death might resemble sleep.  Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage.  No, it really is the end, the end of guilty humankind and the final judgment humankind pronounces on itself.  And here only one thing can help: God’s mighty act coming from God’s eternity and taking place among humankind."

God’s mighty act: on this day the Lord has acted.  We will rejoice and be glad in it.

We take the pains to rehearse the passion daily during Holy Week in part to learn that resurrection means the living of the God who was dead as hell on the cross.  Today is not our celebration of sunshine or bluebonnets or tropical climates winning the day in the course of the natural cycle of things.  Today is the inexplicable, unexpected, surprising Good News that death - our own and God’s - will not, cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If the first women who learned the news were startled at the tomb, how much more when Jesus came to them, appeared to them, and said “go, tell.”  The end is not the end.  God has made them characters in a play whose script belongs to God alone.  No one knows what will happen next.  They are more afraid than ever.  Sometimes living can be more frightening than dying.  All that not knowing.  And also with us.  Terrified and afraid.  Yet they - and we - know the one thing that matters: Jesus is alive.

The frontier ahead is known to God, but not to us.  So we will baptize Laura not into the illusion of our own certainties, but only into the certainty of God’s love for her: the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And this love beyond our knowing both surprises and scares us. 

If we are honest, we cannot imagine death, much less resurrection.  We cannot imagine peace with our neighbor, much less the forgiveness of our enemy and an end to war, the killing of people different from ourselves.  But we are learning to trust the imagination of God.  And we dare to trust the imagination of God on these grounds:

The same God who died for you lives for you today.


Happy Easter.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Did St Peter Have Bunions?
(and other questions from Maundy Thursday)

I wonder if St Peter had bunions or - at the very least - smelly feet.  He almost certainly had calluses.  Cracked soles and calluses.  That’s all but certain: all that travel, walking, talking, on unpaved, dusty roads.  But bunions are admittedly a matter of speculation. 

Peter, I suspect, could be hard on his feet.  And his knees for that matter.  Running headlong.  Without the benefit of orthotics, I wonder how well the disciples did in sandals. 

Did James’ feet over-pronate, like my own?  Were there any flat footers among the holy twelve? 

Was the strike pattern of each disciple - heel to toe or mid-foot strike - something one could discern by studying each foot?

Whatever one’s journey, the feet likely know the full burden of that journey best.  Which is why in World War II and Korea, my grandfather believed that the secret to survival began with good socks. 

On that night around the table with Jesus and his friends, despite his initial protest, I wonder what story St Peter’s feet had in mind to tell.

You put your history in another’s hands when you hand them your foot.  That’s not always easy.

Not that most people are looking to decode it.  Foot-reading is a sorry substitute for face-to-face relationship; friendship born of trust and time.  But it’s true, I think, that our bumps and scars remind us of ourselves at least, and we feel a bit like open books, or naked, and so we grow self-conscious. 

I wonder if this isn’t why we tend to contract out intimate exchanges like pedicures and doctors visits and even haircuts to professionals, not our friends.  In the hands of a professional, a haircut is commonplace.  In anyone else’s hands, my hair is an intensely personal, intimate space.

A friend of mine liked to talk about his “body bubble” - his sense of physical, personal space - the space to which he reserved the right to grant or deny access.

I wonder if Judas felt self-conscious as Jesus, having stated his intention, wrapped the towel around his waist and began to wash their feet.  Was he afraid that his feet might betray the story of his brokenness, his secret intention on that night, that his feet might become a window to his soul?

Vulnerability, even the simple vulnerability of naked feet, is scary because it seems like such a slippery slope.  Which is why children learn at an early age to lie about trivial things.

Hiding one’s self - that was the outcome of the very first sin: Adam and Eve, in love with God, too ashamed of themselves to be present to God.  We know that these three great days of Holy Week are about Jesus undoing the sin of Adam: that Adam ate from a tree and Jesus will die on one; that Adam sentenced humanity to death and Jesus will raise in himself all humanity to eternal life with God.  In three days’ time we will know these things, but consider how the undoing of Adam - or better said, the reclaiming of Adam - begins with these friends around this table and the towel tied around his waist:

Where Adam and Eve hid from God, here is the Great Physician present to his people, on his knees, tending their once-hidden wounds.  Washing them clean with his hands.

The hiding is ending. 

And God the Father, for his part, who has given all that he has to the Son, will take what belongs to the Son and declare it to them, these holy twelve.  The hiding ends when they hand him their feet, and also as he kneels on the floor and takes off his robe.  No more hiding.  Second Eden.

So this is what tonight is about: God in Christ Jesus means to make them his friends.  Friends of God.  And he means to make the same of us.

What a wonderful and terrifying thing, to be made friends of God.

Wonderful because I had thought he would want nothing to do with me.  Terrifying because I realize he will want everything to do with me, and I know so much about myself, and I know full well where his story is going, how terrifying the next three days will be, what they will cost.  Terrifying because, once made God’s friend, I know I am no longer my own.

But what can I want as much as friendship with God?  For what else was I made?

So I look up at the table, at the feast that is prepared, and Christ himself is the feast.  And I think of this image. 

It’s a 15th century icon of the Trinity.  A picture of three strangers who appeared to Abraham and Sarah when this long pilgrimage as God’s people was only beginning.  The very beginning, and these strangers came and Abraham fed them, and the early Church saw this as the clearest (maybe the only clear) depiction of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament.  And there is much that we might observe about this picture, but one thing that the church through the ages has made especially clear: that there is a spot remaining at the table - that only three sides are taken, and that we, in a sense, are already seated at the table, if pushed back a bit, reclining.  And this picture of God’s people at the table with and as the family of God is what the whole story of God has been hoping for and building toward all along. 

Tonight it happens.  The dream of God so close we can taste it.  God at table with his friends.  And we are his friends.  Drawn into the communion of the vulnerable.  The callused.  The ones with worn souls.  Still here is our hope: we are no longer hidden or hiding from God, but he is binding our wounds, feeding us with himself, and giving us the strength and charge to feed one another and others with the food and drink that we find here.  Bread and wine.  His body.  His blood.  Flesh and forgiveness.  The cup of forgiveness.  Poured out for you. 

“Love one another,” he says.  “As I have loved you...”

Made friends of God, love one another.


[Maundy Thursday sermon, preached April 5, 2012, St Christopher's by-the-Sea]

Maundy Thursday Word Cloud

Word cloud for Maundy Thursday.  See you tonight at 7 p.m.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Struggling to Understand the Incarnational Church

It's become a habit of mine to return each Holy Week to a short book written by (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) entitled, Called to Communion.  The book is a particular friend as I prepare myself for Maundy Thursday, which makes sense in light of the title.

This year, I have been especially struck by a short passage that I cherish for the clarity it gives many of the contemporary conversations in the Church - missional, emerging, or otherwise - which, at best, can be said to be struggling for clarity.  The language in all of these that I find unhelpful and sloppy is the manner in which the word "incarnational" is thrown around cheaply.  Despite a compelling legacy in the Catholic Church, use of "incarnational" has degenerated to the point that in some circles it seems to mean as little as hanging out with people moderately different from one's self.  If beer is involved it is definitely so.  

While loving strangers is undeniably of one piece with the Church's response to the Gospel, I struggle to call this incarnational.  Yet one church's website - in defining themselves as incarnational - makes the connection plainly: "we bring Christ to others as Christ was brought to us in birth..."  Again, no Christian would argue against bringing Christ to others (though it is worth noting that the baptismal commends to us the task of also seeking Christ in all persons - to say nothing of the paternalism and colonialism so often a part of phrases like that of the above website's).  The main point, however, is that to call this incarnational seems to either 1) grossly make light of the singular miracle of God-with-us born to Mary or 2) equally grossly condescend to view the difference between myself and my neighbor as equivalent to the difference between humankind and God.  That's preposterous.  But maybe I misunderstand.  I say that in all seriousness - as I look at the above caricature I pray that I do.  Or maybe "evangelism" has just become that bad a word for the Church.  That's fair, too.  In other words, so what?  What would be the material significance of the distinction?

Which brings us to Pope Benedict's words, wherein he helpfully reminds us that "the Church does not simply become Christ," but in holy union with Christ, the Church receives the love and the charge to "constantly become what she is..."  And so repentance is an inseparable part of the mission of the Church.  This truth may seem obvious, but it is a truth more easily forgotten when one conceives of oneself as God incarnate to strangers, I think.  But repentance is an inseparable part of the outward mission of the Church.  And this makes sense.  For as soon as he gave his disciples his body - "take, eat" - he gave them the cup to drink - for "the forgiveness of sins."  The prayer is not that he would dwell in us apart from our equally dwelling in him.  Which doesn't sound like a mutual incarnation.  But it does make me think of Maundy Thursday, which is why I return year in and year out to this book. 

Anyway, here's the passage:

"...the Church is the Body of Christ in the way in which the woman is one body, or rather one flesh, with the man.  Put in other terms, the Church is the Body, not by virtue of an identity without distinction, but rather by means of the pneumatic-real act of spousal love.  Expressed in yet another way, this means that Christ and the Church are one body in the sense in which man and woman are one flesh, that is, in such a way that in their indissoluble spiritual-bodily union, they nonetheless remain unconfused and unmingled.  The Church does not simply become Christ, she is ever the handmaid whom he lovingly raises to be his Bride and who seeks his face throughout these latter days.

"Yet against the backdrop of the indicative intimated in the words 'Bride' and 'Body', the imperative of Christian existence also emerges, making plain the dynamic character of sacramental reality, which is not an already accomplished physical act but takes place as a personal event.  It is precisely the mystery of love, seen as a nuptial mystery, that indicates in unmistakable terms...our task..."  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday Wordle

I'm sometimes a late bloomer with respect to technology fads.  Late or not, I think this one is stellar: "Wordle" takes in your text and visually represents it based on emphases, word choice, repetition, etc.  As an example, here is the visual picture of St C's sermon from Palm Sunday. Cool, huh?

Fools, Ashton Kutcher, & the Kingdom of God
(death, you've been punk'd)

For the first time in years, it has been easy for me to remember the date of Easter day.  Easter day, of course, is worth remembering, especially for Christians.  But for various reasons, it isn’t always easy for me to remember.

But easy this year.  Easy because April 8th, Easter day, is one week after April 1st, Palm Sunday, today.  And April 1st is of course also April Fools’ Day. 

[Off the top of my head, I could not remember the last time this happened.  So I looked it up: 2007.  Not that long ago.  Five years.  But consider that the next closest time was 1928 (and 1917 before that).  And consider that it won’t happen again until at least 2090, and there I’m only making a conservative guess based of the fact that my handy Easter calendar doesn’t go past 2089.  Said handy Easter calendar correctly assumes that I will not need to concern myself with Easter planning beyond 2089.  God willing, and for some perspective here, Jude - my six month old son - will be seventy-seven years old the next time, in God’s good sense of humor, Easter day and Palm Sunday could potentially land on April 8th and April Fools’ Day, respectively.  No fooling.](1)

Now, April Fools’ Day jokes usually follow a predictable form - think here of Candid Camera or Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d on MTV: you start with the awkward predicament, you give it some time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end: the punch line that announces that it’s all been a joke - that you’ve been mislead - the joke’s on you - and the rest of us are laughing because you’re the only one who didn’t know. 

As a kid this pattern could be especially simple (and not especially funny): “There’s a spider on your head!”, for example.  That’s the predicament.  Now give it some time - watch the reaction: the jump, panic, or scream.  Long enough...  “April Fools!”  That’s the punch line.  Now duck, and run like heck.

And this to me feels a lot like Palm Sunday.  A really bad joke.  Only it’s hard to know who exactly is being played.  So much goes so wrong so quickly.  And none of it is funny. One moment Jesus is riding into Jerusalem to chants reserved for kings, the next moment he is strung up on a cross, left for dead, hanging between two thieves.  He’s wrapped in a cloth, entrusted to a tomb, swallowed up by the earth.

Surely the disciples were left looking for the hidden camera somewhere.

The disciples had bet their lives that Jesus was the one.  The one in whom the hope of Israel was set.  “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” they said.  This is the one.  The savior in whom they had put their trust, giving up what they had - all that they had - for the chance to follow him.  Some people have that glow, like merely staying near them will lead to good things - and so you do.  He had awakened their dreams.  They began to believe in God’s promise again, meant for them, not a dry word in a book, not a fossil from an ancient past - but alive, meant for them.  They left their families.

They had followed him around for three years, watching as he healed the sick, raised the dead, and their hearts stirred alive from the insides with the insurmountable, unmistakable yearnings of true hope.

And now his disciples, turned deserters in the moment of crisis, peer out from the shadows and steal a glance at the cross where they see him: covered in blood, April’s Fool.  And they were fools to follow.

You start with the awkward predicament - in this case the sky-high hope - you give it time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end: the punch line that announces that it’s all been a joke - that you’ve been mislead - and the rest of us are laughing because you’re the only one who didn’t know.

Was it all the other way around, I wonder?  Was it Jesus made a fool when every last one of the friends he had poured himself into these past, last three years scatter like roaches to darkness as lightning tears the sky in two?  Had he been a fool to call them his friends?  Or was Jesus made a fool long before those faithless few - was Jesus made a fool by the God who once upon a time had called him his beloved, who now, to everyone with eyes to see, appears to have given him up for dead on the cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Some people say that they cannot call God “Father” and that we would understand if we had ever met their father, that their father was cruel or absentee, nothing like God the Father, but here is Jesus crying from the cross, forsaken, abandoned, made to feel like an orphan.  It is ironic, I think, that in what Jesus names as the moment of divine desertion, the centurion learns to call him God’s Son. 

Was God the fool for believing that if he sent his Son to this vineyard, to these people, they would treat him any differently than the prophets who came before him?  Did God’s stubborn insistence on a thankless creation make him the biggest fool of all?

And what about us?  Here.  Gathered with palm branches in our hands, pinned to our chests, more than two-thousand years later:

Are we fools to look to this Christ on this cross for our hope and our life?
Are we fools to believe that we will not also desert him?
Is God made the fool again to believe that we vineyard workers will receive him any differently than the ones who came before us?

Today’s story is a tragic story made tragic because it is impossible to know who is fooling who.  We assert our innocence in the face of suffering and perceived injustices - we demand our just due.  But deep inside we know better: we are no better.  Swirling folly.  In and through it all, glancing up at the cross, we cannot escape the sneaking suspicion that on this day and all on all our days, daily in our lives, we are only fooling ourselves.

This is what we learn about ourselves on Palm Sunday, I think, as hosannas turn into cries to crucify our king.  The crucified king.  “This is the king” the sign said over his head.  But two thousand years later, he’s still our King.  How does this happen?  How does this make sense?

Two thousand years later, he’s still our King because there is one more fool to be revealed before this Holy Week is through: and the last fool’s name is Death. 

One week hence and we will see it, we will shout it with St Paul: “O Death, where is your sting?  O Hell, where is your victory?”  In the words of the tradition’s great Easter sermon: “[death] took a body, and face to face met God!”

Death, you’ve been punk’d.

You start with the awkward predicament - the death of God’s Son - you give it some time to build in tension and suspense - you watch as the awkwardness ferments - then, after some squirming, the predicament is resolved by the punch line that doesn’t come until the end and - this is the great surprise - death is not the end: but resurrection comes as the punch line that announces that it joke is not the one we thought it was - that Death has been foiled - and all creation will soon be laughing because of the victory of God’s Son.

April Fools. 

Plenty of fools on this, our Palm Sunday.  Plenty more to be discovered in the events of Holy Week along the way to the victory of our God.  As you travel the pilgrim road this Holy Week, as you journey the way of the cross, don’t forget what fools are: a fool is someone who doesn’t make sense.  A fool is someone who doesn’t grasp the reality of their present circumstance.

Holy Week changes everything we thought we knew about reality and our present circumstance, beginning with the king who reigns from the cross. 

Today begins the week whereby Death is made a fool.  Fear follows close behind.  Because this week is true, Death and Fear are fools.  The old common sense of violence, hatred, might makes right, and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of my neighbor are exposed as whimpering attempts at a power that escapes them.  They made sense before, but in this light, no more.

Similarly, you and I are invited by this week, invited by our baptisms, to live into this question: How might I live in such a way that is foolish - makes no sense - unless Jesus Christ was born in the flesh, crucified on the cross, and is risen from the dead?  What would it take for others to say of us: “the only way what they do holds together, makes any sense at all - is in any way intelligible, is explicable - is if the Jesus who was crucified lives today as their King”? 



(1) I've since learned that the guess wasn't far off: 2091, for those scoring at home.

A sermon preached April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday, at St Christopher's by-the-Sea

Palm Sunday: an Exhortation from the Early Church

From a sermon of Andrew of Crete, Bishop and Hymnographer [740]

So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him.  We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him.  Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory.  Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children's holy song: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the king of Israel."

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