Six Words for Following

A Compilation of Sermons from Epiphany 2015

Word1Affirmation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.

We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.

(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)

The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.

But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.

Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.

And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.

Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Word2Invitation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2015 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

Last Sunday, we started our six-part sermon series about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. And we began with the word “Affirmation.” God affirmed in the earliest moment of creation the fundamental goodness of that creation. And God affirmed Jesus – and by extension we who are also God’s children – as the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. The love and goodness of God form the core of our identity. They are not something we earn. They are not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we embrace this fundamental truth, we are ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives.

That’s the second word: Invitation. As we move on, you’ll see how closely linked our two words are, and you’ll see why we had to start with affirmation in the first place.

Invitations offer specific, time-sensitive choices about how you are going to spend your time and resources. A friend may invite you to her birthday party. A head hunter may invite you to apply for a new job. A coach may invite you to join a club soccer team. Or God may invite you. Let me rephrase – God does invite you, me, each of us to join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.

We’ll get to that mission next week since “mission” is our third word. For now, let’s stay with “invitation” – God’s invitation. When God invites us to partner with God in mission, we always have a choice and the mission is always specific. Individual invitations may be time-sensitive due to the exigencies of what a particular mission is, but God’s invitations never expire. God renews them day by day, hour by hour. God is always inviting us into deeper relationship, into closer partnership, into greater service.

In our story this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls to the boy Samuel four times. No three strikes and you’re out here. On the fourth time, Samuel responds to God’s invitation, but I imagine God would have kept calling until Samuel and Eli figured out what was happening.

Sadly, unlike Samuel, we often turn away from the invitations God sends us. We ignore them or decline them because of where or why God delivers them. This is because, most often, God’s invitation intersects with our inadequacies, our pain, our brokenness. Each of us is broken in one way or another, or in many ways. Brokenness is part of the human condition because perfection is far from us and sin is near. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.

But when we allow God to move in our lives, we discover God redeeming this brokenness by offering us invitations to go to the center of our pain. Because only at the center of our pain can healing begin. And because only at the center of our pain will we find solidarity with others feeling the same pain as we. God’s desire to extend holy invitations is not the reason we are broken; rather, accepting a holy invitation is the best way to make our brokenness mean something for ourselves and to others.

I’d like to share with you a deeply personal story about my own brokenness to illustrate this point. I share this not to garner sympathy, but to demonstrate from my own experience God’s astonishing ability to redeem brokenness and refashion old pain into new possibility.

When I was eleven years old, the church broke me. My father was three years into his rectorship at his first church when everything started to fall apart. His misplaced enthusiasm and zealous naïveté collided with an intransigent establishment that said it wanted change and growth, but was not ready to face the consequences of such things. My father was the proverbial unstoppable force, and the establishment the immovable object. And my mother, sister, and I were caught in the middle.

I do not remember much about the conflict. But I do remember one Sunday morning. It is a fixed point in my life. I was acolyting at the 8 o’clock service. My father stood up to preach, but a few minutes into his sermon, a man in the congregation also stood up, a man who had been a friend to our family when we first moved. He spoke out sharply, telling my father to “sit down and shut up.” I had never heard anyone speak to my dad that way, let alone during a church service. I started to cry. My father came over and calmly asked if I’d like to go home. I nodded, and he hugged me and helped me back to the sacristy. Later that week, several parishioners accused my father of planning and then staging my tearful departure from the church.*

A few months after that, we moved to Alabama and were met by the most gracious and loving congregation a clergy family could ask for. But I didn’t trust them. I always wondered when the betrayal would happen. I was broken.

Where is God’s holy invitation in this story? How is God redeeming this brokenness? Let me tell you. The church that broke my family was also called St. Mark’s. It was here in New England, about sixty miles from this spot. It was my father’s first call as rector. We lived next door in the rectory. Our family had two young children, a boy and a girl. You might see a pattern here.

Somehow, by accepting God’s holy invitations throughout my life, my family has arrived at a place close to the center of my childhood pain. And I feel God redeeming that pain every day as I collaborate in ministry with the wonderful people at this St. Mark’s; and as I walk with people who have also been broken by the church.

Each of us is or has been broken in one way or another. But through God’s invitations, our brokenness can mean something. Perhaps alcohol ruined your life years ago, but you’re a dozen years sober, and now you sponsor new members of AA who are trying to turn their lives around. Perhaps the scourge of gun violence cruelly took the life of a loved one, and now you rally support to end such senseless killing. Perhaps you were in the closet in high school and know the pain of one living a lie, and now whenever you meet a gay teen you do all in your power to bring hope to that person’s life. “It gets better,” you say, and you mean it. These are God’s invitations, delivered to the heart of our own pain and brokenness.

And this is where affirmation re-enters our discussion. Since so many of God’s holy invitations originate in our brokenness, our pain can trick us into thinking the invitation is meant for someone else. But we err when we think that God can only use the whole parts of us, as there aren’t many of those anyway. That’s why we must remember that before anything else, God affirmed us as God’s good and beloved children. No amount of brokenness can keep God from inviting us into deeper relationship, closer partnership, and greater service.

We’ll pick up this greater service next week when we reach the third word: “Mission.” But for now, I’d like to share one last story of finding God’s invitation in our brokenness. It comes from Leo McGarry, the chief-of-staff on the fabulous TV show, The West Wing, and a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Leo tells the struggling Josh Lyman this parable:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ ”

*I shared with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, the few paragraphs concerning my experience as an eleven-year-old, and he asked me to share with you what happened after I left the church from his perspective. He writes: “This is a powerful part of your story. You should and must tell it. I would, however, ask you to consider adding what happened after you left the sanctuary (interesting word: not a place of safety for you at that time!). I resumed my sermon, the text was on the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and the whining that accompanies unrealistic expectations: no wonder I was challenged. The most odd and graceful thing for me occurred as we shared holy communion. Everyone came to the altar rail, including my antagonist. The blessing (and irony) of offering him and the other antagonists the grace found within the sacrament still prompts a sense of wonder and joy when the hugeness of God’s love is made evident.

Word3Mission(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20

Two weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.

In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.

When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.

For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?

When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.

This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.

And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.

Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.

Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.

Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*

The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.

As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.

A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.

*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.

Word4Confrontation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28

Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.

Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.

I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.

Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.

To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.

A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *

With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.

Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.

That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.

When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

*Hear Cornel West’s keynote address here. (Scan to 1:00:28 for the speech.)

Word5Rejuvenation(featured)
(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service,
and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)

Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39

Next week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.

And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.

This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.

We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.

Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.

Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.

Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.

When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.

For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).

Word6Revelation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

We’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.

“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.

And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.

We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.

Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.

When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.

And everything begins again.

We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.

With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.

That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.

The Sixth Word: Revelation

(Or Everything Begins Again)

Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Word6RevelationWe’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.

“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.

And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.

We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.

Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.

When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.

And everything begins again.

We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.

With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.

That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.

<<The Fifth Word: Rejuvenation

Vessels of God’s Revelation

A reflection for the Feast of the Epiphany

starsAt the end of the season of the church year that we begin today, we find ourselves standing on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Countless stars shine in the deep blue sky above, and we find ourselves staring up at those stars in wonder and awe. But then a new light – one that outshines the stars themselves – grows in front of us. It’s so bright that we can barely look at it, yet it commands our vision. Jesus is at the center of the light. It’s not shining on him, but forth from him. He is the light. As we gaze at him, a thought stirs in our guts: this is what Jesus looks like all the time. But in this moment, we are given the gift of seeing him as God sees him: as a luminous being that outshines the sun. We are given the gift of revelation, a sudden and surprising knowledge that we can attribute only to God. We are given the gift of epiphany.

Working backward from this event known as the Transfiguration, we read in the Gospel the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches any who would listen how to be his follower. We meet the disciples as they leave their boats and follow Jesus, as he invites them to “Come and see” where he abides. We stand on the shores of the river Jordan as Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters, and we hear the thunder call of God, within which is hidden special words for God’s beloved Son alone. And thus we backtrack to this evening, in which we hear the official story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem.

Most often we conflate this story in the Christmas pageant, of course, but it should and does stand on its own. This is a story very much like the Transfiguration, a story of people seeing in a way that doesn’t seem normal. This group of wise people from a distant land is in tune with God’s movement throughout creation. They take upon themselves an arduous trek through the desert to Jerusalem and then to nearby Bethlehem. They find the Christ-child: so humble, so vulnerable. He’s not adorned as a king. He lives in a house, not a palace. His parents are poor. And yet, these wise people see beyond such mundane details.

They look into the heart of this situation, and they see the holy in their midst. Like Peter, James, and John witnessing their illuminated Lord on the mountain, so the magi see and celebrate the sovereignty before them. They look at the child Jesus and see the king he is.

The gift of the magi is not in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are mere tokens. Their gift is the ability to see beyond, to perceive the deeper, holier level of existence that most of us are blind to most of the time. They practice the ability to have epiphanies, to resonate with revelation.

You don’t have to be a wise person, a magi, to develop this spiritual resonance. Who knows how often the disciples would have seen Jesus as the luminous being he obviously was if they but trained themselves to see with the eyes of the heart? Who knows exactly what the magi saw when they looked at the young messiah?

There is so much more to see than the merely visible. There is so much that God is revealing to us each day of our lives that we miss because we are looking in the wrong direction or because we are wearing the wrong set of lenses. This is what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about – following the Magi’s example, training ourselves to see into the heart of things, to see what God is always revealing.

This is hard work, I know. God knows we often miss what’s right in front of us, let alone what’s deep within. And so God has given us the light of the world to help us see. The disciples notice the glory of this light on the mountain. The magi adore this light in the humble abode in Bethlehem. And each of us has this light shining both on us and forth from us. This is important, so I will say it again: Each of us has this light shining on us and forth from us. You and I are luminous beings in the eyes of God, like Jesus created to be bearers of God’s light to every place we go and everyone we meet. We ourselves are epiphanies. We ourselves are surprising vessels of God’s revelation.

When we take up this mantle – to be vessels of God’s revelation – we carry with us the joy of the magi as they adore the young messiah. We carry with us the wonder of the disciples as they witnessed the transfigured Jesus. And we carry with us the light of the world, which shines forth from the divine spark that God planted within each of us.

Isaiah knows this. Notice how he begins today’s reading: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah invites us both to bask in the radiance of the Lord, but also to shine ourselves. In this we are like the moon, which shines by reflecting the light of the sun.

The best way to keep your eyes open for God’s movement in this world is to shine out as a light of that same movement. The more you shine, the more your light will illuminate those things that God yearns for you to see.

As we enter the season after this Feast of the Epiphany, the light will continue to grow. This is a blessing of living in the northern hemisphere. Let the lengthening of days serve as a reminder that the light of the world is growing within you, as well. This world of ours has a way of diminishing us, and the truth we bear can fade away. But the good news is this: even just the hint of flame can keep the darkness at bay. So glow. Let your light shine through. Show the way that God sees you, as a luminous being whose light is a revelation, an epiphany, to others.

Go Towards the Light (September 14, 2012)

…Opening To…

Look upon me, O Lord, and let all the darkness of my soul vanish before the beams of your brightness. (Saint Augustine of Hippo)

…Listening In…

Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5; context)

…Filling Up…

Light expands to fill all the space it can reach; darkness finds no purchase where light is shining. Light allows us to see all the beautiful variety of the visible spectrum; darkness cannot steal away color where light is shining. Light warms us; darkness brings no chill where light is shining. The light of God shines into our hearts and out of our hearts, making us windows through which to see God.

And, after all that, light points the way home.

Perhaps, you are walking down your street at night and you notice that your mother left the porch light on for you. The lamp’s reassuring glow brings you to the safety and warmth of your own house. Coming into a dark house can be a scary proposition, but turning on even a single light changes the experience.

Perhaps, you are driving home from out of town. It is night. It is dark. And the headlights shine only so far in front of you. But they shine all the while: they shine far enough out in front of you to guide you all the way home. Is this not how our walks with God work, as well? Jesus Christ walks one step in front of us and we follow as best we can. Like the headlights, he shines just far enough in front of us to show where to put our feet. But he brings us home.

In the end, darkness never has and never will overcome light. God’s light shines in our lives, which prompts us to shine in the lives of those we meet. The old story says that when you die, you see a white light – the light that people say ushers you into heaven. But the truth is this: that white light doesn’t shine only when you are about to die. That light shines all the time. The Lord shines on all of us, and shines throughout our lives. The Lord shines on us as the sun and as the headlights and as the porch light. The Lord shines on us, pointing the way home to God.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you shining on me throughout my entire life. May I soak in your light and reflect it back to all those I meet. May I be a vessel of your holy light, aglow with your presence and aflame with your Holy Spirit; in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that you are a light that never goes out. You are always shining on the path that takes me home.

Schooling Nicodemus (or) “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

The following post appeared Sunday, March 14th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge,  so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

PB&J

Five years ago, during my summer as a camp counselor, I discovered I had within my untested vocal cords the “Dad” voice. The final day of the last week of camp came at last, and parents bumped their minivans up the gravel road. The parents (who, a few nights ago, the campers could not imagine living without for another homesick minute) had to wrestle their children away from new friends and into the confinement of the backseat and the long drive home.

Doing the morning "Launch" for Junior Camp at Peterkin.
Doing the morning "Launch" for Junior Camp at Peterkin.

I remember one mother attempting to corral her son, who was determined to expend every last upside down second of monkey-barred bliss. After a few minutes of bargaining and cajoling, she looked at me and shrugged plaintively. Now, that summer had taught me many things, among them the “Dad” voice. So, in my best drill sergeant, I barked: “JOHN.” John swung down from the monkey bars and walked over to his mother, who was looking at me like I had just pulled her six of diamonds from an intact navel orange.

At camp five years ago, I learned that I possessed the “Dad” voice, but it was not until last week at the same camp that I discovered I really, truly want also to be the Dad behind the voice. Sure, I’ve always wanted to have kids in that vague procreative instinct sort of way. Last week, however, awoke within me the deep, abiding notions that God might call me to Fatherhood and that I might actually be okay at the whole Dad thing.

This realization hit me Wednesday at lunch. I sat down next to a boy who is going into the third grade. He looks exactly like the boy in Finding Neverland, and he melted the hearts of all the female counselors at camp (and, to be honest, mine too). On his plate, he had arranged two pieces of bread (white), a tub of peanut butter (creamy), and a tub of jelly (apple flavored). For a few minutes, he stared at these ingredients, but they remained inanimate, a Cézanne from his sandwich period. Then the boy looked up at me, and I looked down at him. “Would you like me to make your sandwich?” I asked.

“Yes, please.” And he grinned and nodded his freckled face ostentatiously and a hundred miles away his mother (I am sure) felt the tremors of his good manners.

I pushed my plate out of the way and slid his over. Then I picked up one slice of bread and spackled on the peanut butter. Next came a moment of indecision. I looked solemnly at the boy. “Do you want me to spread the jelly on top of the peanut butter or on the other piece of bread?”

He giggled. Apparently, my question was that of a naïve apprentice. “The other piece.” I spread the jelly and stacked the slices of bread. Then another moment of indecision and a further necessary question: “Rectangles or triangles?”

“Triangles,” came the firm response. “Four, please.” I twice cut the sandwich diagonally and slid the plate back to him — four little tea sandwiches, but without the cucumber or pretension.

With both hands, he picked up a sandwich quarter and nibbled the edge like a chipmunk. Then he took a big bite, and my anxiety that I would be a deficient sandwich maker released. Now, this event might seem small and ordinary, and in a way it was. But small and ordinary do not preclude God from revealing God’s hopes for us. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my case, this was neither small nor ordinary for two reasons. First, until last Wednesday, I had never made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before. Yes, I know how strange that is. I don’t like cake either. And second, I had never made a sandwich for a child who potentially could  be mine (if I had been more stupidly adventurous in high school).

These two reasons mixed with the ordinariness of the situation and God infused the whole thing with revelation. As I watched the boy eat his PB&J, I knew in that place that knows before your mind does that I want to be a Dad. I want to know the kind of love that I see in my father’s eye when he welcomes me after a long absence. I want to play catch and praise scribbles and help do long division and frighten potential suitors and change diapers. Well, maybe not that last one. I’ll get there when I get there. I know that my image of fatherhood is still gilded with romanticized glitter. I know that not everything is picnics and ice cream. But I also know that the sacredness of a PB&J sandwich crafted with love puts more points in the “pro” column than anything could match in the “con.”

You might be thinking: why are you writing about this? Is there something you’re not mentioning? Don’t fret. I am either a series of well-planned, time-consuming steps or one really dumb decision away from being a father. And the former is the only option I’ll ever consider. There are just moments in our lives — small, ordinary moments — that make us realize certain things. God reveals God’s goodness in such moments. Last week, making a sandwich unlocked the door to Fatherhood in my future. What will it be today? I don’t know, but I pray for the attentiveness that helps me resonate with God’s hopes for me. I pray for something small and ordinary. I pray for PB&J.

Unmuddying the waters (Bible study #9)

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes wimusicmanth “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.

The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.

Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.

Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.

I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.

Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of  “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.

Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.

Footnotes

* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.

** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.

*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!