Digital Disciple Chapter 1: Virtual People

Here’s the first in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in the quiz about the video. In a few days, we’ll draw from the correct answers a random winner. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and the Blue Sun T-shirt (from Joss Whedon’s Firefly) that Adam wore in the video (well, not that specific shirt, but a similar one that’s brand new!) It could be you!

It’s Love, in Point of Fact

(Sermon for Sunday, May 30, 2010 || Trinity Sunday, Year C, RCL || Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15)

At the beginning of the science-fiction film Serenity, the Operative scans through security footage of Simon Tam breaking his sister, River, out of a government-run facility that has been conducting torturous experiments on River’s brain. The doctor who runs the facility tells the Operative that it was “madness” for Simon Tam to give up his own brilliant future in medicine in order to save his sister. “Madness?” the Operative replies. “Have you looked at this scan carefully, Doctor? At [Simon Tam’s] face? It’s love, in point of fact. Something a good deal more dangerous.” It’s love, in point of fact.

It’s love, in point of fact, that forms this wonderful community, which cares for those both within and without our little band of pilgrims. Some would say this is madness rather than love, asserting that maintaining a purely self-interested motivation for action is the only safe and sane way to live.

It’s love, in point of fact, that brings this wonderful community here today to worship a God we’ve never seen with our eyes nor heard with our ears nor touched with our fingers. Some would say this is madness rather than love, asserting that only what we can prove and quantify and predict are real.

And it’s love, in point of fact, that forms this wonderful community to worship an unseen God who reveals God’s personhood as threefold, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some would say this is madness rather than love, asserting that the Trinity is a needless complication of the already tenuous and rather dodgy business about God.

Some would say all this is madness, but it’s love, in point of fact. Let’s take a look at each of these three – community, belief in God, and belief in God as a Trinity of persons. We’ll look at them in the opposite order, so we’ll start before the beginning.

You see, if we start at the beginning, we’ve already arrived on the scene too late, as our lesson from Proverbs does today. Proverbs’ personification of Wisdom tells us, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” Wisdom may have been created before the earth, but Wisdom tells us that the Lord still created her. This is far too late to begin our discussion of the Trinity. Too even grasp the edge of the expanse of the majesty of the Trinity, we must cast our imaginations back to before there was even a concept known as “before.” You with me so far? Good.

In the First Letter of John, the writer makes the sweeping statement: “God is love.” If nothing besides God existed before the beginning, how did this love manifest? If there was no Creation to fill the role of the Beloved, then how could God be “love?” At first the answer seems rather narcissistic: if there was nothing else to love, then God loved God. But we can’t stop there because true love always manifests as a relationship. In our futile attempt to find the right word to name God, we latch on to relational language and call God “Father.” This sets up one side of a loving relationship, that of parent to child.

But the relationship is incomplete without that second person. And so we also call God “Son” to acknowledge the complete relationship between loving parent and beloved child. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says that God “loved me before the foundation of the world.” This love between parent and child is so palpable that the love itself is the third member of the Trinity, which we experience as the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul tells the church in Rome that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

So this loving relationship between parent and child existed before anything else, including the concept of “before.” Nothing existed that could substitute for or diminish the relationship. The love was pure, perfect, unsullied by deficiencies such as lust or anger or apathy or dominance. In fact, the perfection of the relationship meant that, while there was a Trinity of persons, a Unity of being was the ultimate reality. This Unity of being was the home in which the three persons dwelt: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them.

Now, I’ve been speaking in the past tense for the last few minutes. Of course, because all this happened before there was a “before,” there was no such thing as the “past” or the “future.” There was only the eternal present in which the perfect Love between Parent and Child manifested in the perfect Unity of being. Before the beginning was this ultimate reality of God, of love, of home.

Then came “In the beginning,” and suddenly there was a time known as “before.” God breathed the wind of God’s Holy Spirit over the face of the deep. God spoke the Word of God, through which all creation came into being. The Trinity, still loving itself into eternally perfect relationship, created the heavens and the earth, thus generating an “other” to bring into that loving relationship, that home that is God. This Creation is not God because God made it, just as God made Wisdom in today’s reading from Proverbs.

Everything that God creates exists in Space and Time, which are simply two more things that God created. Right now, we exist in the space that is this beautiful sanctuary. We don’t exist on your sailboats or sitting in the bleachers at this afternoon’s Red Sox game. And for the last seven minutes, we’ve existed in the time in which I’ve been speaking. Sad to say, we can’t move backward in time and choose not to come to church since the sermon will be really confusing. But because God created Space and Time, God exists outside of these constraints. However, since God loves this little universe of God’s making, God continues to move around and throughout and within it. Truly, God loved this little universe so much, that God the loving parent gave to Creation God’s beloved child.

This beloved child, this Word made flesh came to our little planet as a baby who grew up to be a man who said and did such wonderful things and who taught us about God’s love for all Creation and who expanded our hearts and minds so they could contain such wonderful thoughts and who was killed because of his vision of acceptance and love and who rose miraculously from the dead and who ascended once again to exist in the eternally perfect relationship with God and who showed us the way home to this relationship.

After Jesus Christ ascended, he sent the Holy Spirit to us, the same wind of God that swept across the face of the deep at the moment of Creation. Through the Holy Spirit, God continues to pour God’s love into our hearts so that they can expand to hold the Truth of Jesus’ message of hospitality, generosity, and service. Each member of the Trinity moves in our lives, a family perfectly unified as One, as One who yearns to bring us back home.

Far from being some obscure, antiquated doctrine, the Trinity permeates existence today as it always has even before anything else existed. The Trinity loves itself into eternally perfect relationship, which makes forming loving relationships in our own lives the best way to glorify God. When we come together in this wonderful, loving community to worship God, we participate in the life of the Trinity. When we share the body and blood of Christ, we participate in the life of the Trinity. When we go out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to love and serve and find God in those we meet, we participate in the life of the Trinity. This community is home – not a perfect home like the Trinity is unto itself – but a good home made by fallible humans doing our best to love one another.

At the end of the film Serenity, the captain of the small spacecraft finds River sitting in the copilot’s chair, while rain lashes the cockpit’s windows. “But [flyin’] ain’t all buttons and charts,” Malcom Reynolds tells River. “You know what the first rule of flyin’ is? …Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn in the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.”

The majesty of the Trinity is that God is a perfect home unto God. And God invites us and everyone and all Creation into that home. What makes God a home for us? It’s love, in point of fact.

Faithful Thomas

(Sermon for April 11, 2010 || Easter 2, Year C, RCL || John 20:19-31)

I’ve always had a special affinity for Thomas. Perhaps, because we share a name, I feel fraternally responsible for defending him against those who label him with one of the most enduring epithets of all time: Doubting Thomas. (Curiously enough, I’ve never felt much like defending Adam for his stupidity in the garden, but that’s another tale.) So, we have this fellow uncharitably nicknamed Doubting Thomas. We remember him for exactly one reason: he doesn’t trust the words of his fellow disciples when they tell him that they have seen the Risen Lord. Their witness is not enough for Thomas. He needs to see and touch Jesus, just as the other disciples had done when Jesus came to them the first time in that fearful room behind a locked door. Thomas needs the visual and tactile proof of the resurrection for himself. And for this one, simple reason, Thomas has been stricken with his unfortunate nickname, much maligned for his obstinacy, and readily dismissed for his doubt.

But this caricature misses the subtle interplay between doubt and faith that we are going to explore the next few minutes. Notice that Thomas never actually follows through with his stubborn ultimatum. He tells the other disciples, “Unless…I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The next weekend, Thomas is with the other disciples when Jesus comes to them again. And when Jesus invites Thomas to fulfill his requirement for belief, Thomas no longer needs to. Rather than reaching out his hand to touch Jesus’ side, Thomas lets loose from his lips the highest affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is a man of deep faith.

This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus decides to travel near Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, says to the other disciples, “Let us go with him, that we might die with him.” Thomas is a man of deep conviction. This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus tells the disciples he goes to prepare a place for them, asks of his Lord, “How will we know the way?” Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you add faith, conviction, and questions together, oftentimes doubt results, at least for a time. Faith gives you the reason to ask questions, and conviction gives you the perseverance to allow doubt to temper faith into a stronger whole. Too frequently, trouble happens when we mistake doubt for the opposite of faith, and therefore as something to be avoided at all costs.

One of the reasons for the persistent mistake of thinking that doubt is the opposite of faith comes from this very Gospel text (and indeed, this particular English translation of the Gospel text). When Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” This sets up a dichotomy between doubt and belief and puts the two in opposition to one another. You can either doubt or believe, but you can’t do both. However, “Do not doubt but believe” is not actually what Jesus says. I don’t say this very often, but the English translation we read in church gets this sentence horribly wrong.

Because the New Revised Standard Version messes this verse up so badly, we need to have a short lesson in ancient Greek, the language in which the Gospel was written. I promise that I won’t make a habit of giving these lessons from the pulpit. But I also promise that you already know more Greek than you realize.

You're probably wondering why this picture makes sense in this context. I promise it does. Go watch the recently cancelled Dollhouse to find out why.

In Greek, to turn a word into its opposite, you add an alpha, which is really just an  “a,” to the front of the word. We do the same thing for English words that come from Greek. Try this one: Bios is a Greek word that means “life.” We get the English words “biology” and “biotic” from it. “Biotic” means “relating to living things.” If we add an “a” to the front, we get “abiotic,” which mean “relating to non-living things.” Or how about this one: Theos is the Greek word for “God.” In English, “theism” is the generic word for belief in God. So, add the “a” prefix and we get “atheism,” which is the belief that there is no God. We could come up with a dozen more examples, but I think you get the point.

Now let’s go back to our verse, which, if you recall, this morning’s reading translates as “Do not doubt but believe.” The Greek word translated “believe” comes from the word pistis, which means “faith.” The word that is translated as “doubt” is simply the word pistis with the “a” prefix – apistis. Therefore, the word should really just mean “unfaith” or “unbelief,” rather than “doubt.” With this new translation, the verse becomes, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”

“Do not be unbelieving but believing.” This is a far cry from “Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus never tells Thomas not to doubt. Rather, Jesus tells Thomas not to jettison his belief all in one go. There is a huge difference between the two. This supposed “Doubting Thomas” is still incredibly faithful, even in the midst of his doubts. Remember, Thomas is a man of deep faith and conviction, who has the nerve to ask tough questions. Doubt arises in such a chemical makeup. But having doubts does not signal the loss of belief. Having doubts does not signal the abandonment of faith.

Doubt happens when you have enough conviction about your faith to question it. Thus, doubt gives you a reason to reexamine your faith and to sign up with Jesus Christ over and over again. Of course, too much doubt can lead to unbelief, just as, conversely, too much certainty can lead to stagnant faith.

Okay, now that we’ve established that doubt is not something to be avoided at all costs, let’s use our Easter celebration to bring the power of the resurrection into this discussion. Our faith finds its home in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus triumphed over death in order to keep his promise that he would be with us always, despite the end of our physical existence. Resurrection happens with eternally vaster scope than death ever could. Because of this, death exists within the power of the resurrection. The resurrection subsumes death into itself, making death a piece of the reality of eternal life. In the same way, belief is so much more expansive than doubt; belief subsumes doubt into itself, making doubt a part of the pathway of faith.

Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” And Thomas responds with such grand words to express his belief: “My Lord and my God!” Rather than dismissing Thomas as that good-for-nothing doubter, embrace Thomas as a faithful, thoughtful, courageous follower of Christ whose doubts ultimately lead him to a wondrous confession of faith.

God knows that we, too, have our doubts. We wouldn’t be human without them. But belief in God gives our doubts purpose, shape, and context. Do not be ashamed of your doubts. Shame only works to erode faith. Rather, see doubt as a sign of your conviction, as a sign of the fact that you care enough to ask tough questions. Then use that conviction, that perseverance to push through the doubt to the deeper faith beyond. And with those five glorious words of Faithful Thomas, praise the Risen One who is the beginning and end of our belief: “My Lord and My God.”


(Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2010 || Lent 4, Year C, RCL || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:-13, 11b-32)

Connie looked especially haggard. For the better part of two hours, I watched her hold a phone to each ear, tap-tap-tap on the keyboard, and patiently plead with belligerent passengers all at the same time. As I inched closer to the desk to change my flight information, I caught snippets of the abuse hurled in Connie’s direction and prayed for forgiveness for the entire irate human race. The reason for the belligerence was simple: the airplane was broken. Some gizmo that keeps the flaps from freezing fell off during the plane’s trip to Nashville. One piece in a hundred thousand broke, and the plane was grounded. One piece – a nothing part, really, until you don’t got one. Then it appears to be everything.

Ironically, Delta had to fly this nothing part, this anti-flap-freezing gizmo, in from elsewhere. The departure time leapt forward, finally settling on 8:00am yesterday morning, a full twenty hours and ten minutes late. With the airplane broken, the system broke down, as well. All the other flights out of Nashville were booked solid. Passengers missed connections. People were stranded and growing more bellicose with every update of the plane’s ramshackle status. And in the middle of it all stood Connie, a wisp of a woman on the verge of tears. She clung to the desk, and she clung to her manners. She was the unlucky target of vented frustration, of heaps of bile, of caustic protestations. And all because the plane was broken.

You’d think that people would be used to brokenness by now. You’d think that people would take the brokenness in stride because brokenness marks our lives everyday: broken homes, broken bones, broken pavement, broken promises, broken ecosystems. You’d think that this brokenness would come as no surprise. But every time we encounter brokenness, we seem to react with astonishment and incredulity. How could your best friend betray your trust? How could the kid break his wrist right before the big game? How could the airplane be grounded?

While brokenness does seem to mark our existence, I think we react with astonishment because in some deep place within, we know that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.

And in that seeing, in that knowing, we hear God calling to us, inviting us to work with God’s help to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

The world needs this message of reconciliation because the world is marred by broken relationships that need repairing, separations that need healing, divisions that need stitching up. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is, and they grumble when Jesus upsets the brokenness with which they have learned to live. So Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.

The younger of two sons presses his father to give him his share of the inheritance. The father acquiesces and divides his property. The younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” So I’m wondering: what’s the younger son’s sin? At first glance, his sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. And while this qualifies as sin, I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.

Instead, his major sin is the division caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.

At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.

The younger son travels back to his father’s house, and yet he’s aware that it will never be home again. His decision to separate himself from his family saw to that. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he says. But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.

At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story.

A celebration for the younger son’s return begins. His elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house and asks a slave what’s going on. When he finds out about his brother’s return, he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.

But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”

As the parable ends, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I wonder if their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable.

Both sons separate themselves from the family, the younger through taking his inheritance to a distant country and the elder through refusing to join the celebration. But their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. When neither brother feels much like a son, the father practices reconciliation and repairs his broken family.

The father refuses to separate himself from his sons. Likewise, God refuses to be separated from us. Our sin may separate us from God, but God never separates from us. As Paul says, God “reconciled us to himself through Christ.” God never gives up on relationships with us. Instead, God continually brings us back into relationship with God. We may be broken, but God is whole, and so we can find wholeness. We may be separated, but God is welcoming, and so we can bring welcome. We may be divided, but God is One, and so we can come together.

Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. And we also know that God has reconciled us to himself in order that we might engage in a ministry of reconciliation to this broken world. The question is: will we?

And the answer is this: we will, with God’s help.


* The first person to notice and correctly identify the reference to Joss Whedon’s Firefly in this sermon wins five points. (These points aren’t really redeemable for anything, but hey, you should try to get them anyway.)

* If you are as big a fan of Firefly and Serenity as I am, you may also notice that the overarching theme of this sermon is pretty similar to that of the film Serenity. And no, that’s not the reference. The reference is incredibly specific.