The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A little Christmas Eve carol

Happy Christmas Eve!

Here's a little celebratory carol as interpreted by our friend, Stephen Torrence - perfect for a long night at church!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Gift Can We Bring?

The gifts that I received for my ordination were a bit overwhelming.  (That's a word that I've been using a lot lately when thinking about the ordination - overwhelming...  So much of it was.)

But the gifts, in particular, were overwhelming.

On one hand, it feels a little strange getting gifts on the occasion of an ordination - or it does to me, anyway.  This is mostly because the ordination itself is such a gift.  Being given the opportunity to be a priest is a gift.  So to receive gifts on top of that seems almost too much.

It's not that I'm not grateful - exactly the opposite, really.  I'm so grateful that I have a difficult time forming the words.

I received many gifts from so many people who have been a part of my life.  Some for a few years, some for longer than I can remember.  Each of the givers had given me so much over the years, and here they are - giving gifts again.

Three of those gifts in particular deserve some additional reflection.

The chasuble and stole, in which I was vested after being ordained, were designed by me.  My mother came to visit this summer for the sole purpose of going with me into the city to help me to find the right fabrics for the design that I had in mind.  She and my father purchased those fabrics and other adornments and we sent them to my Aunt Ginny who constructed the chasuble according to my specifications.

It really is quite remarkable.  Aunt Ginny, I am sure, had never even heard of a chasuble.  And yet, when I asked her to make it, she easily agreed.

She is, of course, an accomplished seamstress.  But she didn't do it for the love of sewing.  She did it out of love for me.  Whenever I wear it I will feel that love - worked into each stitch of the garment that was produced almost entirely by hand.

I have said from the beginning of thinking about this chasuble that my hope was that it would be "traditional, but not off the rack".  Eventually I began to realize why that was so important to me.  It's like the kind of priest that I hope to be: honoring and respecting the ancient traditions of the church - taking my share as a priest of those ancient traditions - but still new and unique in a way that honors the new work being done by God through me.

I will be forever grateful for this gift from Aunt Ginny.  The gift not just of a garment, but of a symbol for my dreams for my priesthood.

Another significant gift was my chalice and paten.  My cousin Robby had the idea of getting my cousins and aunts and uncles together to give the chalice, and my parents gave me the paten.  It was a gift from all of them on that side of the family.  And if that weren't special enough, they passed a card around between them - despite being scattered around the country! - and included that in the gift.  It was almost even more special.  Even those few who couldn't be with us for the ordination, were able to be there through their words.

It's amazing - the giving of a Eucharistic vessel.  I'm young, and I expect to be a priest for a long time.  I expect that I'll stand at many different altars and hold many different Eucharistic vessels as I preside at the Eucharist more times than I'll be able to count.  But these vessels will go with me.  They will hold the body and blood of Christ - as it is known to us in the breaking of bread and as it is known to me in the love of my family and community.  They are beautiful, but nowhere nearly as beautiful as the love that they represent.

Finally, I was given this pectoral cross.  It belonged to the Rt. Rev. Frederick Wolf, the Sixth Bishop of Maine.  Bishop Wolf was the bishop who ordained my friend and mentor, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton.

As I understand the story, +Fred was initially reluctant to ordain Elizabeth+ out of a fear that she would be "an embarrassment to the church".  To our great fortune, he eventually came around and ordained her.  But she took that calling seriously and has worked tirelessly for more than 23 years to prove him right - to embarrass the church everywhere that it needed it and to call it to repentance.

When +Fred died, his pectoral cross was given to Elizabeth+, along with his prayer book.

Elizabeth+ gave me that cross on the day of my ordination as a priest.

I am humbled.

I will treasure it for the rest of my life, and hold it as a symbol of the mark that Elizabeth+ has left on my own priesthood.

The common thread which runs through all of these gifts is that of love and community.  That community raised me, both in my family of origin and its extensions, and in the larger family of friends, colleagues, and mentors.  It continues to raise me and to love me.

That's the love and community to which Christ is calling us.

I know this.

I know about love and community and family and support.

But when I forget, I'll have some outward and visible signs to remind me.

Maybe it is all too much.

But so is the love of God.  I am so grateful for that abundance.


Here's a picture of +Fred - a scan of a photo of a portrait (hehehe...) given to me this morning by Elizabeth+.  I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bruce Springsteen endorses Marriage Equality

In the Garden State, this stuff is currency!

Give Bruce some lovin' at

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Prepare ye the way of the Lord

6 December 2009
Advent 2C
Luke 3:1-6

Merciful God, give us grace to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.

“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Or perhaps this is one of those instances where the King James Version fits a little better than the New Revised Standard Version that we read in The Episcopal Church: the King James would say, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Rather than focusing entirely on the way that is to be prepared, the King James Version puts a bit more emphasis on the preparer: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

If you hear nothing else this Advent, I hope this is what you’ll hear and remember. It’s the central message of Advent. It is our primary task in Advent: for us to prepare the way of the Lord.

Earlier this week, as Rev’d Elizabeth and I were talking about this text, she said something that spurred my thinking. She asked why Jesus needed the way prepared. If Jesus really is Christ – the anointed one of God and God incarnate among us – would our meager efforts at preparing really be necessary? Can it be that this one who would overcome death, stands in need of our help in overcoming the powers of this world?

It seems unlikely.

But even so prophets both old and new call us to prepare the way of the Lord.

If you’ve ever prepared for something really big, you probably already know a piece of the answer. I’ve often heard people speak of their marriages or the birth of a first child as the kind of thing for which one is never really prepared. You read all the books. You set up the nursery, or seek the counsel of your priest. You plan the wedding. You schedule the baptism. You have showers and send announcements to your family and friends. You order your lives into a common home. You make changes that make that home safe for an infant.

But in spite of all of the preparations, are you ever truly prepared for the reality of being a spouse or a parent?

I am, right now, in the last days of my preparations for becoming a priest. This process of preparing has been ongoing literally for years. From the more general preparations of prayer and study, to the planning of endless details about the ordination liturgy and accompanying celebrations. In just a few days my family and friends will begin arriving and months and years of preparations will be set into motion.

But in spite of all of the preparations, can I ever truly be prepared for the reality of being a priest? [note: at this point, Elizabeth could be seen shaking her head to say "no"...]

This is where we find John, “the Baptist”, in the story of that first Advent of Christ.

God had been preparing us for as long as there had been God. From the Garden of Eden, to the enslavement in Egypt, to wandering lost in the desert, to kingdoms, to exile, to temples and their destruction – the arc of history had been long, but it had been bending toward the incarnation. And in these last days the preparations were happening at fever pitch.

But in spite of all of the preparations, could the people of God have ever been truly prepared for the reality of the incarnation?

It’s not an accident that these final preparations were happening in the midst of the wilderness. Just as John cried out the news of the incarnation from the snares of the wilderness, that’s how we always find it. The story of John’s wilderness was of a literal one – full of fear, danger and loneliness – but for the Jewish people it was the wilderness of living in an occupied land under oftentimes-oppressive foreign rule. And any time that we are unaware of the incarnation of God in our lives, we, too, are wandering in wildernesses of our own – equally full of fear, danger, and loneliness.

It’s in the midst of that wilderness that the prophet cries out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

It’s in the midst of that wilderness that we are given the impossible task of “preparing” for something that we can’t even fully imagine – the incarnation of God.

I don’t think God really needs us to prepare God’s way. I believe in the unimaginable power of God and I believe that God could make the paths straight without us. But I do think that we need to prepare the way of the Lord – not for God’s benefit, but for our own.

Can we ever really prepare for the really big changes of our lives? For being a parent or a spouse or a priest? Can we ever really prepare for the interceding of God into our wilderness?

Probably not.

But it is in the preparing that we are prepared. The preparations are much less important than is the preparing. That was the message of the prophet in the wilderness of that first Advent and it is still the message of the advents in our wildernesses today.

It has been observed that every “Good Friday” leads to resurrection. In the midst of the “Good Fridays” of our lives – the times of mourning and grief and sorrow – that truth can be hard to see. But in sure and certain hope our faith pushes us toward the pain’s complementary Easter, even when it seems beyond our field of vision.

So, too, every one of life’s wildernesses can be an advent of the incarnation.

We may never be really prepared to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ”. It’s hard to remember in the wilderness what that even means. We can become so distracted by our mountains and valleys and crooked paths and rough ways that we forget what “joy” even can be. But even so we are called to prepare. We prepare in the sure and certain hope that our preparing will prepare us – that the rough places will, through the miracle of having encountered God, be made smooth.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Party in the USA

So yeah...  following the New York Senate's massive failure on the Marriage Equality front today, I'm not much in the mood for a "Party in the USA"...

But this video of the song in sign language by Stephen Torrence has been making me smile all week.

I don't know ASL, but his expressions and obvious passion have taken this song, that I frankly don't care that much about, and turned it into something really cool and fun.

I hope it makes you smile as much as it keeps making me smile!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

World AIDS Day

This video, by arguably the most influential of American theologians, is still one of the best sermons on subject of AIDS that I've ever encountered.

A few years ago, when Madonna's Confessions tour was live, the Evangelical and other neo-conservatives were up in arms.

"She's on a cross! She's wearing a crown of thorns!!", they cried.  As if that was enough to convict her of heresy.

Didn't they see why she was invoking the very powerful symbol of the cross?

Call me a heretic, but I'd argue that this pop star who wouldn't admit to being a Christian even if she was one, gets soteriology and Christology more than most clergy.

Just think about it...


children are orphaned by AIDS

20 million children will be without parents by 2010

without help these children will die before they're 2


If I ran away I'd never have the strength to go very far; how could they hear the beating of my heart; will it grow cold, the secret that I hide, will I grow old; HOW WILL THEY HEAR; WHEN WILL THEY LEARN; HOW WILL THEY KNOW?
 For I was hungry, and you gave me food.

I was naked and you gave me clothing.

I was sick and you took care of me.

And God replied,

"Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers... did it to me."

                        Matthew 25:35

At which point, she removes her crown of thorns and prostrates herself.

AIDS is still real.  It is not finished or a passed fad or yet controlled.  People are still suffering.  They are hungry, naked, and sick.

So our work is not yet done.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Don't worry about a thing" (reprise)

26 November 2009

Matthew 6:25-33

**NOTE: faithful followers of this blog might recognize this sermon.  It's an updated and contextualized version of a sermon on the same text that I preached about a year and a half ago.  It's one of the most googled sermons I've written, mostly because of the Bob Marley reference.  When I was asked to preach on this text for today's Thanksgiving service at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, I decided it might be good to bring back an old favorite.  Usually I'm philosophically opposed to "recycling" sermons, but since it's for different people, a different occasion, and a while has passed, I thought it might be okay this time.  Thanks for indulging me :)

In the name of God. Amen.

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. But strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

That’s nice, isn’t it? Just quit worrying, because God’s going to give you every thing you need. If you listened closely to the Gospel reading this morning, you could almost hear Bob Marley in the background: “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. I guess I could just go ahead and sit down. We should probably just all go home. God will take care of everything. As the bumper sticker theologian put it, “Let go and let God.” Right?

So why am I still standing here? If it’s true that “all these things will be given to you” as Matthew has said, why are we all here? Why are we all still engaged in the process of discerning God’s will for the church? Or for ourselves?

Worry is a natural phenomenon. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Even on this day devoted to celebrating and giving thanks, some of us are probably experiencing worry right now.

So in some ways, this text makes me angry. “Don’t worry”?? We do worry. We will worry. Isn’t it a little condescending for the writer of the Gospel to say we shouldn’t? Would Jesus really have told us to just stop worrying?

And remember, these words are part of the Sermon on the Mount. They are to have been spoken by the very man who, as the story progresses, will lead his followers into Jerusalem, and who will be brought before Pontius Pilate, and who will eventually suffer death on the cross. He is going to tell us not to worry? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

I doubt that any of us are fated for the kind of life and death that Jesus had, but even so, we have our own causes for worry. We could probably list them more easily than we could ever presume to “count our blessings”. The economy. Violence. Drugs. Fearing for the security of our jobs. Fearing for the stability of our relationships.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright?” I’m not so sure. We all have plenty of cause for worry. And I’m sure you could think of more personal – maybe even secret reasons that I couldn’t know to mention. So I hope Matthew and Bob Marley will forgive me if I don’t just blindly jump on board.

“Don’t worry”? Easy for you to say.

Of course we will worry. Jesus knew we would worry. Advising us against worry wasn’t a preventative measure. It was a recognition that in our worrying, our efforts are often misplaced.

If all we hear in this text is Matthew’s Jesus na├»vely telling us not to worry, we’ve missed an important piece of the advice. Bob Marley may have stopped at encouraging us not to worry, but Jesus offered something more, an alternative: “strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things [the things for lack of which you could consume yourself with worry – all these things] will be given to you.”

It’s a radical concept! Strive first for the kingdom of God – before we even consider our own needs or desires. It’s not just “Don’t worry” – he’s saying, don’t worry about the stuff. Don’t worry about money or possessions or superficial needs. If we strive first for the kingdom of God, we needn’t even worry about the really important things like food or clothing.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. When you’re hungry, it’s only natural to worry about where your next meal will come from. When you’re facing eviction from your home, it’s only natural to worry about where the next payment will come from. When you’re lonely it’s only natural to long for affection.

But what if we really did join Jesus in this counterintuitive thinking? What would it mean to strive first for the kingdom of God, instead of striving first for our own desires? What would it mean to replace all of our worries about things with an eagerness for the glory of God to be realized on earth?

Jesus isn’t telling the hungry, or the poor, or the lonely to stop worrying. More so, he is telling us – those who are not lacking – that it should not be their job to worry. We all have areas in our lives where we are lacking and areas in our lives where we are not lacking. But if we all could strive first for the kingdom of God as it can be realized in our midst, then there would be no need for any of us to worry over our human needs.

The kingdom of God among us would be defined by the reality that all of our needs would be met. If I am striving first for the kingdom of God then my neighbor will never be hungry. My neighbor will never be homeless. My neighbor will never be lonely. If we spend less time worrying over our own want of material possessions and superficial comforts, and more time striving to realize the kingdom of God, then that realization of God’s vision for humanity would ensure that all of our needs would be met: mine, yours, and those of our neighbors, both here and around the world.

I don’t think it’s an accident that on this – the day that is for most of us a day of seemingly unbridled bounty – it’s no accident that this is the day our church, in its wisdom, has asked us to consider our worries and perceptions of scarcity. We always have opportunities for worry, but it’s helpful to consider those worries in the context of our bountiful blessings. It gives us a chance to put them in perspective.

As we examine our lives as members of the Christian community, today reminds us that we must continually ask ourselves: what would it mean if we would make the radical, counterintuitive commitment to strive first and foremost for the realization of God’s vision for humanity in the world? If we made such a commitment, what worries could we allow to rest?

Could people of prayer heal a world torn apart by war and crime? Perhaps. A discipline of prayer yields peace in individual lives. Imagine how our tolerance for unnecessary human suffering would be affected if, as a people, we disciplined ourselves to be people of prayer and allowed our actions to be governed by that peace instead of by our fears. An active commitment to peace could become as infectious as the fear it replaces.

Can the church really speak to the epidemics of anonymity and loneliness that are so rampant in our culture? I think so. When we shift our focus from corporate strategies for consumption to Christian strategies for compassion community will emerge. That light of community will outshine the darkness of solitude that perverts God’s vision for the world.

God’s vision for humanity already exists. We are not called to build it or to create it. God has already done that heavy lifting for us. But we are called to strive toward it, even in the face of all the other kingdoms of this world that might stand in its way.

So don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is going to be all right. Rather than allowing yourself to be consumed with worry, strive instead to make real God’s vision for humanity. When you do, all the little things will fall into place. Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Rev. James Otis Sargent Huntington, OHC

25 November 2009
Proper 29B (again!)
John 18:33-37

** NOTE: In our parish we have a mid-week Eucharist on Wednesdays (at 7AM - eek!).  Our practice is to use the propers from the preceding Sunday.  It is also our practice that the preacher on Sunday will also be the preacher at this service.  Whenever that's me, I like to try to incorporate the observance of whatever Feast Day there is, even though we're not using the propers of the day.  I usually don't use a full manuscript for this service, but this morning I did use some quickly sketched notes, so here's a recreation of what I said...

Today we celebrate the Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington.  Born in 1854, he was the son of the first bishop of the Diocese of Central New York.  When he was 26 years old his father ordained him a deacon and then later, a priest.  Not too long after that, while he was on a retreat in Philadelphia, Huntington began to discern a call to monastic life.  He considered joining the Society of St. John the Evangelist - an English order that had recently established a province in the United States, but instead he felt more called to found a uniquely American order.

Along with two other priests, he established the Order of the Holy Cross.  They began their work of prayer and service to the poor with the sisters of the Community St. John Baptist in New York City.  Eventually, the two who initially began working with Huntington in the order decided to leave.  One, because the rigors of monastic life were taking a toll on his health, and the other, because he discerned a lack of vocation.

Even in the face of this initial setback, Huntington continued in his work and eventually professed his life vows.

Soon, others joined him and the Order of the Holy Cross began to grow.  The order moved from its initial work in New York City a few times before settling in West Park, New York in 1902.  The West Park location remains their primary house.

While studying the life of James Huntington, it was interesting to me to notice that his life was book-ended by some of the most turbulent times in American history.  His early years were shaped by a country embroiled in Civil War.  The last years of his life were during the Great Depression.

On Sunday, I talked about the different language between Pilate and Jesus: they were each coming to their meeting from such vastly different perspectives that they were hardly able to communicate.  They were only barely speaking the same language.

Christians continue to face challenges in communicating with the larger world.

Huntington serves as an example for us, because he used his life of devotion, prayer, and service to the poor to help bridge the chasm that can sometimes exist between the troubles of the world and the hope of Christ.

This is the gift of the monastic tradition: in their lives, they give us that example.  We aren't all called to the Religious life, but we are all called to build those same kinds of bridges where we can.  Like Huntington, we can use our own lives of prayer and service to build bridges between the very real troubles of the world and the hope that we know in Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Belonging in the Reign of Christ

22 November 2009
Proper 29B
John 18:33-37

In the name of God, the Almighty: who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

One of the ways that I made my way through college was as a bank teller. I loved it. While my friends worked in malls or at restaurants and had unpredictable hours and worked on holidays, I had a set schedule. And though I didn’t make as much money as many of my friends, I always knew how much I would make – I wasn’t dependant on tips or sales quotas or anything like that. I just showed up when I was supposed to and counted money.

It was satisfying work. I could look back at the end of the day and see the thousands of dollars that had come across my desk, the hundreds of transactions that I would perform, and as if by magic, it almost always added up. And on those rare occasions when it didn’t, it would always become clear what had gone wrong in the days ahead: some paper misfiled or some rogue number inverted.

There was order and clarity.

I worked for two rather small, locally owned banks that both, while I was working at them, “merged” with larger, more corporate institutions. In both cases, the new corporations brought with them better pay, better benefits, and new technologies that made my work even easier.

It was a good life.

At the second bank I worked for, I worked as a floating teller. Each day I would get a call telling me where I was to work for that day. I filled in for other tellers who were out sick or on vacation, and I rarely worked at any one branch for more than a few weeks at a time. It appealed to my burgeoning wanderlust, even though I was only traveling within a few dozen miles in a corner of southeast Louisiana. I enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a variety of people and in a variety of markets. There were the typical suburban branches, but I also got to work in downtown branches, rural branches, and branches on what most would have called “the wrong side of the tracks”.

Those were my favorites.

I remember in particular the Plank Road branch in Baton Rouge. It was in an impoverished neighborhood very much on the “wrong side of the tracks”. There were off-duty police officers stationed at the branch at all times – mostly to keep the homeless people from loitering and drinking all the coffee. But it gave my time there a sense of adventure.

I loved the ladies who worked in that branch. They were from the neighborhood, but had “made good”. They were somewhat looked down upon by the rest of the bank, but in this little corner of the kingdom, they were on top – respected in the community as some of their own who had risen above.

It didn’t take me long to encounter the reality that the corporate policies in which I had been so thoroughly trained didn’t work quite the same on Plank Road as they in the other parts of the bank.

One of my first customers at the Plank Road Branch was an older, African American woman named Mrs. Jackson. I forget exactly what it was, but the transaction that she was requesting was something perfectly innocent, but that required a variation from our normal corporate policies. Policies were rigid things meant to protect the bank – and me – from the customers.

I’ll never forget Mrs. Jackson’s face when I refused her transaction. She wasn’t angry, but seemed to be hurt, more than anything. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “But I’m a member of this bank!”

There was an essential difference between how I had been trained to see her, and how she had come to see herself.

I had been trained to see myself – in my capacity as a teller – as belonging to the bank. As one who belonged, it was my duty to protect the bank from all those individual invaders on the outside.

But Mrs. Jackson saw herself differently. Through years of coming to the same building and building relationships with the same people, she saw herself not as an outsider – not even as an individual, but as one who belonged – part of the body of that institution. She saw her relationship with the bank as corporeal as my own. Through all of the corporate transitions she had not been trained in her new role: she saw herself as a member, but it was my job to dis-member her – to make her into an outsider.

Mrs. Jackson was from a different time in the life of that institution – a time when people belonged. And while she asserted her belonging, I worked to cut her off – to make her no more than an individual.

It’s not unlike the story that we hear in the Gospel lesson today. As was the case with Mrs. Jackson and me, we hear Pilate and Jesus engaging in fundamentally different understandings of belonging. In the arraignment, Pilate seizes the issue of belonging to determine the charges against Jesus. As the designate of the Roman Emperor, Pilate knows to whom Jesus belongs. Or at least he thinks he knows. The question is, to whom does Jesus believe that he belongs – or perhaps more importantly, who does Jesus believe belongs to him?

It’s no wonder that this passage should come across as sounding kind of confusing. Jesus is answering questions that are different from the ones that Pilate is asking. They are coming from such different perspectives that they are only barely speaking the same language.

Jesus is accused of insurrection. To determine the validity of the accusation, Pilate presents Jesus with the only two possibilities that he can imagine: are you claiming to be a king in opposition to the emperor, or do you belong to our kingdom? Jesus’ answer is beyond Pilate’s ability to imagine: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

They volley back and forth, but Pilate was never able to find a common language with Jesus.

Today, in the church calendar, on the cusp of a new liturgical year, we find ourselves in a position not unlike Pilate’s. We celebrate today, the idea of the Reign of Christ. But our culture is centuries removed from any experience of this kind of monarchy. Even in those Western societies where monarchs still exist, they are by no means the kind of absolute monarchy that would have posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire.

Though we don’t have a common language to speak about this kind of ruler or monarch, what we can understand is the same kind of thing that Mrs. Jackson understood – something about belonging. In proclaiming the Reign of Christ we are saying that we belong.

We are not just individuals at worship, but members of the Body of Christ.

We are not just customers of some Christian Enterprise, but we are members – sharing a stake.

So much of our culture tries to dis-member us – to make us individuals. Individuals are so much easier to control than members of a Body that is greater than its parts. Just as I participated in a system that tried to dis-member Mrs. Jackson, so, too, are all of us tempted by different kinds of participation in the cult of individualism.

Christianity is about belonging. And belonging is never about individualism. It is about recognizing the myriad of ways that our existence is tied up in one another. In proclaiming the Reign of Christ, we are proclaiming our belonging and our membership.

Like Mrs. Jackson, we are called to claim that membership. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I love living in the "facebook age" :)

I just think it's really cool that one of the very important ways that I'm inviting people to my ordination is through facebook.

Yeah, yeah...  I know...  Facebook (like any of the emerging technologies) can be problematic in some respects.  But I honestly believe that these are (or at least can be) tools for being the Body of Christ in the world.

So here's the "online invitation".  Y'all come!

And here's the e-version of the paper invite

Ain't technology cool? :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Eyesight and Insight

**NOTE - so...  I haven't blogged in a while!  Sorry about that - I've missed y'all!

Anyway - today was Youth Sunday at St. Paul's.  This kids gave reflections on their mission trip from this past summer in lieu of a sermon at the 10:00 service.  It was great!

This is a little homily that I preached at the 8:00.  And the picture to the right is of the ACTUAL Mansfield, LA! 

25 October 2009
Proper 25B
Mark 10:46-52

Whenever I hear the story of “Blind Bartimaeus” my mind always drifts back to Mrs. Reisinger.

When I was in the first and second grades, my family and I lived in Mansfield, Louisiana. Mansfield is a small town of about 5,500 people just south of Shreveport, Louisiana. Though we were only there for two years, we made many memories and built many relationships that persist even these nearly-25 years later.

Mrs. Reisinger was our next-door neighbor. She was 98 years old and lived alone in her magnificent old Southern mansion on the main street of town. I was always the kind of child who related easily with people of different generations, and Mrs. Reisinger and I became quick friends.

Very often, in the afternoon, I would walk next-door to Mrs. Reisinger’s house for a visit. She would offer me fresh baked teacakes that she always seemed to have just made, served warm with cold lemonade. We would spend hours talking about nothing in particular. Knowing me, I’m sure I provided her with whatever updates and insights my 7-year-old mind had come up with. But the highlights of our visits for me were always her stories. In her almost a century of life, she had seen more than my young mind could imagine.

And though she was blind by the time I knew her, she had an ability to help me to see what she could only see in her mind’s eye.

My relationship with Mrs. Reisinger taught me many things. She awakened in me a curiosity for history – and particularly the real stories and feelings of the people who lived that history – a curiosity that still continues to shape who I am and how I see the world. She was a vigilant participant in the “village” that it took to raise this child – teaching me manners and courtesy through our interactions. And as I look back on our somewhat unlikely relationship, I recognize that she helped to teach me that there was value in both sight and insight. Though Mrs. Reisinger had lost one, the other remained as sharp as ever.

This is one of the lessons of the story of “Blind Bartimaeus”.

In the biblical world, it was common to see physical infirmity as a punishment for human sin. Throughout the stories of the healing miracles of Jesus, we see again and again that Jesus didn’t see things that way. One of my favorite gospel songs says it like this: “The justice of God saw what I had done, but Mercy saw me through the Son – not what I was, but what I could be, that’s how Jesus saw me.”

Bartimaeus may have been without sight, but he was not without insight. He could see Christ in a way that others couldn’t and had faith sufficient to want to follow him.

Bartimaeus’ sight seems significant. Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And Mark tells us that Bartimaeus immediately regained his sight and followed Jesus on his way.

Jesus isn’t looking for “blind followers”.

Last week Elizabeth spoke to us about the difference between “Servant Leaders” and “Team Players”. Another word for “Team Player” – at least as its often interpreted as an ideal – might be “blind follower”.

But Jesus never lifted that up as an ideal.

This, which we see as metaphor in the story of Bartimaeus, can be seen throughout the Gospels. Jesus is clear with those whom he encounters just what they’re getting into when they choose to follow Jesus. He’s clear with us just what we’re getting into when we choose to follow Christ.

We’ve seen in over and over again in the past few weeks:

Jesus’ command to the rich man who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven: sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

When James and John were lobbying for prominence and greatness because of their association with Jesus, Jesus laid the cards on the table: can you drink from the cup from which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? It won’t be easy. And even then you may not get what you desire.

We also heard: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him. And three days after being killed, he will rise again… Whoever wants to be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.”

The work of following Christ is hard. It may put you in harm’s way – as countless Christians martyrs can attest. It may cost you earthly pleasures.

So don’t just follow blindly. It’s much too important.

Following Christ is important. So much so that it requires every drop of insight and faith that we can muster. It requires disciplines of servanthood and leadership, because the lures of this life are great.

Mrs. Reisinger died a few years after we moved away from Mansfield. Though many of the stories that she told have faded with the passing years, the insight that she helped to pass on to me continues to live.

She was a living Bartimaeus. A Christian whose insight surpassed her eyesight.

We should all be such Servant Leaders.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flash mobs are fun! :)

Here's a flash mob protesting the Whole Foods CEO for his opposition to Health Care Reform.

Now before y'all get all uptight about it.... Of course the man has a right to his opinion. But he a guy who's gotten rich off of selling the liberal agenda to upper middle class America. Don't you think those same people have the right to see what their money is supporting?

Hattip to Can it Happen Here? for sharing it!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't use Bing for searches!

*Note - the following is an email that I just sent to the Microsoft Corporation.  I've been incredibly disappointed in their new Search engine - Bing.  Do yourself a favor - AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS!!

Of course everyone loves Google - but anything is better than Bing!

Subject: Dirty Marketing Tactics

When Bing was launched, I was impressed by your marketing and your claims that it would provide better results for my internet searches, so I decided to give it a shot.

I must say, I was disappointed with your product.  The search was no better than any other search engine that I use everyday.  In no way did I see it matching the claims of your advertisements to be better and more precise than any other product out there.

I would have just stuck it in my back pocket to use as an alternative search engine from time to time.

Now, however, not only will I never again use Bing, but I am actively encouraging others not to use it as well.  After just one use of your product, you have infected my system.  Now, I can hardly go to a web page without a Bing pop-up window invading my browsing.

I have never had problems with pop ups until I made the mistake of using a Microsoft product.  Now, you are everywhere.

Your dirty marketing tactics prove this company to be no better than a common spammer.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Indiscriminate inclusivity or Discriminating exclusivity?

27 September 2009
Proper 21B
Mark 9:38-50

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

It’s been fascinating to me to discover just how many of my sermons here lately have a beginning – whether spoken or unspoken – that is somehow related to the social networking tool, Facebook.

This sermon began as a “status update” that I began seeing on a few friends’ pages. The status update is a little box where you can type what you’re doing, or some quote that strikes you or expresses you, or some kind of conversation starter.

My status update yesterday was, “Whew!! Finally found the [LSU] Tigers on TV! It’s sometimes tough to be in exile!” It was a way for me to claim my heritage in a strange land, and a way to reach out to my people back home over a shared experience. So a status update can really be anything.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a debate emerging on a few of my friends’ status updates. It’s an update of the “conversation starter” variety. It says, simply, “Indiscriminate inclusivity or Discriminating exclusivity, which do you prefer?”

Think about it. If you only had the two choices, which would be more desirable?  Would you want to be inclusive if it meant that you had to include absolutely everybody?  Might it be easier if you could pick and choose just a little?!

We certainly tend to value our inclusiveness. In this parish in particular, we are proud of the fact that we welcome everyone. If you go to our parish website, one of the first things you will see is a welcome. You don’t have to click anywhere. It’s right there, below the “Come, Grow, Celebrate” banner. “Absolutely everyone is welcome in this place!” That’s a quote. There’s even an exclamation point on the end! We’re trying to say that we really mean it!

But it’s not just a Christian value – this valuing of inclusiveness. We, as a nation, declare ourselves to be inclusive. We’re proud of our inclusiveness. In her poem, “The New Colossus”, Emma Lazarus describes the Statue of Liberty – that most powerful symbol of welcome – as the “Mother of Exiles”. On her tablet, Lazarus’ words are inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. /Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,…”.

They were Lazarus’ words. They became the words of that “Mother of Exiles”. And each of us, in our schools or in our families, was taught to make them our own. We were taught to take pride in the fact that we are a part of a country such as that – a land where all are welcome.

So the Facebook debate seems pretty simple, right? “Indiscriminate inclusivity or Discriminating exclusivity?” We’re Christian. We’re American. We value inclusiveness, so we should be inclusive. Moreover, we should demand it of others. It’s that simple.

The problem is, it’s not that simple.

As Americans, we’re not exactly as inclusive as Emma Lazarus had dreamed we might be. A wall is being built along our border with Mexico, because we seem to think we have enough of them. And though it’s looking like the policy may soon be changing, people who are HIV-positive have, for years, been denied the possibility of immigrating to, or even traveling to, the United States. We’re afraid that they might create a health crisis! (As if we didn’t already have one.) Even students from other countries who hope to come to the United States to further their educations must demonstrate financial viability by proving that they hold very large sums of money. We certainly wouldn’t want poor people getting stuck here. They might be a burden to us.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Well… Sure. So long as they’re not tired, or poor, or parts of huddled masses. We don’t want them!

Wherever there is a “we” or a “them” the ideal of inclusiveness wasn’t reached.

Christians also have a long history of struggling to adhere to our value of inclusiveness.

I remember one of the much talked about scandals of the Lambeth Conference last year: in the opening worship service in Canterbury Cathedral, many people were offended that the Bishops of the church were asked to sing that great hymn, “All Are Welcome”. The scandal there was two-fold. First, it was a ticketed Eucharist. Only those closest to the center of the Conference activities were allowed to attend. Those of us “on the fringes” of the event were politely uninvited. We most certainly were not welcome – despite whatever hymns might have been sung. But, perhaps more seriously, was the fact that Bishop Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, had been politely uninvited from the Conference altogether. The pain of his exclusion was still raw for many of our Bishops, and fortunately, the irony of them being asked to sing that song at that time and place was not lost. The church could not sing of its inclusiveness in the midst of an act of exclusion without someone noticing.

In the Gospel lesson that we’ve heard this morning, we hear this same Facebook debate roiling among the disciples and Jesus – are we to be indiscriminately inclusive, or discriminating and exclusive? Like a 7-10 split, Jesus instructs us to aim for both of these contrasting ideals. He calls us to be discriminating and inclusive.

With regard to those outside the fold, the exchange is telling: “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

So long as they’re not causing us harm, they are welcome. Even if they’re not following us, they’re helping us in their own way. We don’t need a monopoly. “All are welcome!”

The real discriminating, however, should happen within ourselves. Jesus instructs us to be always mindful of the ways that our own deeds can be a hindrance to the work of God. Though we are on the inside, it would be easy for us to cause either ourselves or others fall away from the fold.

It’s counterintuitive. Everything in the world tells us to “look out for number one”. We want to find ways to get ourselves included, but we are naturally given to being discriminating about who we’ll let in – either into ourselves or into our circles of influence. Jesus turns all that on its head.

The disciples were worried that their power would be diminished if it were indiscriminately shared. But Jesus knew the paradox – in sharing himself and his power, it could only grow. And so the same was true for the disciples just as it is true for each of us.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes – I’ve probably used it here before, but it’s worth hearing again. Mother Theresa once said, “I have uncovered the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt – only more love.”

That’s the message of the Gospel. That’s the answer to the Facebook debate. That’s the discriminating inclusivity to which Christ calls us. Because it’s precisely in that openness to others that we find the living Christ. Amen.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"I'm good enough... I'm smart enough..."

30 August 2009
Proper 17B
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

So, I’ve been thinking… This week – for a change – I thought we might talk about bread. ☺

In case you haven’t been following things, for the past five weeks, the Gospel lessons have been all about bread. Well, maybe not all about bread, but there’s been quite a lot of bread talk. It all started with the feeding of the five thousand and moved on from there into four weeks of reflecting and expanding on that experience through the various “I am the bread of life” teachings.

This week, for the first time in more than a month, we have a Gospel lesson that makes no mention whatsoever of bread. But like all great teachings, the lesson remains, even after the words have faded into memory.

Though the Gospel this week is not all about bread, the story continues in the days following the feeding of the five thousand. We return to the story in the Gospel of Mark. Just as the feeding miracle and its accompanying teachings remain fresh in our minds; how much more must they have lingered in the thoughts of the disciples?

At this point in the story, the disciples are gathered around Jesus and they are taking a meal. Jesus had told them that the bread of the earth would fail to sustain them forever – so far, his teaching was holding true.

When the Jewish leaders saw their manner of dining, they were scandalized. So much so, that they confronted Jesus on his failure to adhere to the ancient teachings of the faith once received.

Depending on your level of experience with the so-called orthodox or ‘right-thinking’ proponents of practically any faith tradition, you might be beginning to see a fairly familiar pattern emerging.

One of the lessons that I always try to impart whenever I’m teaching young people is this: whenever you encounter someone who claims to have a handle on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – particularly with regard to matters of faith – you can almost guarantee that they’re wrong. Particularly with matters of faith! It is our job, as faithful people, to long and strive for an ever-deeper understanding of the heart of God. But invariably, the moment we think we’ve reached that goal is one of the moments when we are farthest from it.

This is what the Pharisees were guilty of: in their steadfast assurance of their knowledge of the heart of God, they judged Jesus and the disciples for behaving in a way to its contrary.

One of my stumbling blocks in reflecting on this story was my 21st century, germaphobic mindset. Who among us hasn’t instructed a child to wash up before dinner? But that wasn’t the complaint of these 1st century Pharisees. They knew nothing of germs and, as such, were not the least bit concerned about that. Instead, their complaint was that Jesus and the disciples had failed to conduct themselves in compliance with the demands for propriety by the religious authorities. It was not so much that they were dirty, but that they were unclean. They were eating with ‘unsanctified’ hands.

Like I said: know-it-alls almost always don’t. And their complaints tend to follow a specific pattern. Part of that pattern is that their lack of knowledge is eventually revealed.

For the previous five weeks, it hasn’t really been “all about bread”. The real discussion was more about a kind of dualism between the spirit and the flesh – between the stuff of God and the stuff of the world.

Jesus taught about the insufficiency of the material world to meet our spiritual needs. It might have been easy, over these past weeks, to declare that earthly things are inherently evil because they detract from the spirit. But if you listened carefully, you notice that Jesus never said that. Instead, he teaches something more radical altogether. Jesus says that not only is the stuff of the material world not evil, it isn’t even capable of being evil.

The Pharisees had taught that holiness in the sight of God required ritual actions of purity – washing away and abstaining from certain things of the world to restore individuals in the sight of God. But Jesus said ‘no’. Evil cannot come from the stuff of the world – the stuff we put into our mouths or that touches our bodies. It just isn’t that powerful. Instead, evil comes from within our hearts. We have the power to create evil, just as we have the power to create good. The stuff of the world has no power to create – good or evil.

The frightening part of this lesson is that, too often, the evil that we face is a product of our own doing or not doing. Even if not as individuals, we as a society can be the cause of great evil. And when evil loses this mysterious quality, there’s no one left to blame it on. We just have to bear the responsibility for the evil we have done or for that, which was done on our behalf.

But there are two sides to that coin. The truth is not just that we are capable of evil, but that we are capable of good. We don’t need to perform endless rituals to make ourselves good enough for God. We are good enough.

I remember the old Saturday Night Live sketch by Al Franken where the man stares into a mirror and repeats to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog gone it, people like me!”

Part of the humor behind that sketch was that the character so clearly didn’t believe it. He sat before his mirror each day trying to will that statement into some truth that he could believe in.

Christ tells us that it is our truth. We are good enough. Not in the sense of some silly mantra to be repeated day after day, but in a deep, ontological sense. In the very depths of our being – somewhere even beneath our bones – we are good enough. No amount of washing can make us any purer in the sight of God. We don’t need the rituals to make us good enough for God. We just are.

It’s not about the bread.

It’s not even about the bread and the wine of the Holy Eucharist.

It’s about the Christ that is present in our communion.

It’s about being good enough. Even in the midst of our failure. We are good enough. Not because of any length to which we go to atone. Not because we have said so with enough assurance.

We are good enough because God has declared it so. Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Best argument for Health Insurance Reform

This is the simplest, easiest argument I've seen yet for Health Insurance Reform to date.

So let's get on that, already!

Hat tip to Ann Fontaine for sharing this!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

S.M.A.R.T. goals and the truth behind failure

23 August 2009
Proper 16B
John 6:56-69

In the name of God, who is our living, our dying, and our life. Amen.

I failed out of college.

When I was 17 years old and just out of high school, I began my first attempt at college. It was a great time. And I learned a lot. I learned about late night drives out in the country with my friends. I learned about fraternity parties. I learned about beer.

I was not, however, as successful learning about things like going to classes or studying or writing papers.

I failed.

If you look at my transcripts you can see it as plain as day. I failed. It’s right there in black and white.

In the corporate world, people often talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals. These are goals that are:

and Timely.

Smart. And when my first attempt at college is evaluated as a series of S.M.A.R.T. goals, it was a clear failure.

It wasn’t for a lack of intelligence or aptitude. I could offer a lot of excuses. I was too young. I wasn’t ready. I was engaged in an unexpected period of self-examination in my life that, in the end, proved distracting for me. But when looking at life through “S.M.A.R.T.-colored” glasses, none of that matters. All that matters is that I failed to achieve the specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely goals that had been set.

But life isn’t always as clear as a set of S.M.A.R.T. goals. While it is true that I was evaluated as having failed much of that first semester of college; and while it is true that I was politely asked not to return to that esteemed institution for a second semester; I don’t count the experience as a failure. It was in that failed semester that I had my first exposure to the academic discipline of religious study. Though I failed the class, I still learned a lot of content that I still use today. And even more significantly, it awakened in me an interest that I had no way of knowing was there. It propelled me further down the path to the ways that God is calling me to live.

In that semester of failure – and in the period that followed it – I did a lot of growing up. So was it really a failure?

In the evaluative tools of the world: it certainly was. In the scope of my life: I don’t think so. It was hugely successful in ways that are not specific or measurable. And I couldn’t have planned that kind of success through any series of attainable or realistic steps.

Life just isn’t always neat enough for that.

So now, for the fifth week in a row, we’re talking about bread. It all started back in July with the story of the feeding of the five thousand – certainly one of the ‘top 40’ greatest hits of biblical literature. But for these four weeks that have followed, we’ve looked a little deeper at what happened next. In the real time of Jesus’ life, we’re probably only talking about the events and conversations of a few days. But we needed to spend some time digesting those few days so that we could begin let the big picture surrounding that feeding miracle take shape and come into focus.

What would have been the point of the feeding miracle if we had not heard the teaching that followed? What would have been the point of the bread if Jesus had not used that opportunity to reveal a piece of what is true: “You have eaten bread, but I am the life-giving bread. That is what you really hunger for.”

The crowds and the bread are certainly amazing. But if that’s all we see in this story, we’re missing a huge part of it.

It’s probably easier to focus on the crowds and the bread. That’s the eye-catching part of the story. In terms of S.M.A.R.T. goals, that’s the successful part of the story. But it’s certainly not the whole story, and not even the most important part of the story.

To begin to see the big picture of the importance of Christ walking among us, we have to hear the teachings of Jesus. Those who heard these revolutionary teachings probably said it best: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Five weeks ago those five thousand who were fed by the bread were about to take Jesus by force to make him their king. But little by little, as they followed him and got a clearer picture of who he was and what he was about, the crowds began to disperse. The bread was wonderful. It satisfied the temporal needs of the people. But the teachings were a little tough to swallow.

On the basis of the kinds of S.M.A.R.T. goals that are encouraged in churches today – budgets, pledges, membership, average Sunday attendance – when thought of in those terms, Jesus failed. His congregation went from 5,000 to 12 in just a few days. Does that mean he was a failure?

I’ve noticed over the past few years that parents of young people who are about to go off to college tend to be comforted by my story of failure. It’s a story of failure that turned out not to be such a failure. Everyone would, of course, still prefer that their children not have a path like mine. Other paths can be a lot easier and often just as fruitful. But I think parents are comforted by my story because it reminds them that there are other paths to success. Sometimes even paths that are puckered with problems. But they are no less successful.

All of our lives have problems. We have all failed in small and not-so-small ways. And we all would be wise to learn about other ways of evaluating success. It can be helpful if goals are S.M.A.R.T., but not all achievements are.

This is one of the lessons we’ve learned in these five weeks. If we’d only heard about the feeding of the five thousand, we would have missed the “difficult teaching”. We would have missed the chance to put ourselves – if only a bit – into the minds of the people that Jesus taught. We would have missed this chance to imagine how we might have reacted without the two-thousand-year filter of our faith and tradition to guide us. Would we have joined the thousands who left? Would we have joined the dozen who stayed? In a sense we don’t have to imagine. We join the thousands who left every time we remember only the bread. We take the miracle and we move on – not taking in the difficult teaching. It’s bread, but it’s not about bread.

Perhaps most importantly, if we had not had these weeks to live into the difficult teaching, we would have missed this chance to stand in awe of a God who speaks truth in the face of worldly failure.

This is our model. It’s the difference between the bread of the world and the bread of life. Jesus could have just kept performing miracles that would have amounted to little more than magic tricks: healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the crowds. These things put us in touch with our lives, but not our life. They give us what is needed for living, but they are not life-giving.

The teachings of our faith are difficult.

The goals of our faith are not S.M.A.R.T.

But our faith is life-giving. It is to our souls like bread is to our bodies.

Christ is our bread. Amen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New MIKA is coming!

Here's the newest single from MIKA - from his upcoming album, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much"

I'm sold!

Literally! I pre-ordered the album on iTunes. You can, too, by clicking here.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bread alone?

16 August 2009
Proper 15B
John 6:51-58

In the name of God. Amen.

The old adage is that a person cannot live on bread alone. I’m beginning to think that the compilers of our lectionary did not agree! This is the fourth out of five weeks in which the primary metaphor in the Gospel lesson is about bread.

It began three weeks ago. The crowds following Jesus had earthly needs – perhaps the most basic of earthly needs: they were hungry. They were gathered in a field and their resources were scarce. But somehow, Jesus gave them their fill. Then, after their immediate needs had been met, the people clamored around him. He retreated from them, but they continued to follow him.

So in the lesson that we heard two weeks ago, he began to teach.

He knew that the crowds were following him because he had fed them with bread. But he also knew that they needed something more. They could not live – at least not really live – on bread alone.

They had come to him in search of bread, so he met them where they were. He taught them about bread. They had eaten the bread of the earth – the toil of their hands. They had had their fill. But their hunger was more persistent than that bread could satisfy. So he told them of the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

“Sir, give us this bread always!”

And that’s when he springs it on them: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And that was it. Like the cliffhanger at the end of a drama, we were left with that bold, unexplained statement. ‘I am that bread of life. Through me your needs will be met.’

So it’s understandable that we came back to the story for another look last week. There’s bread that gives life to the world and this guy claims to be it? Sure, he’s done some incredible things, but that might be pushing it.

And that’s right where we found the story last week. Jesus has just given away the secret – in the terms at least most likely to make any kind of sense to this crowd – and they were shocked. How can he claim to be some kind of magical bread from heaven that will give life to the world? Then they remembered who he was. ‘Is this not Jesus, whose father and mother we know? He’s just this guy, and here he is claiming he can give life to the world…’ You can almost hear the crowds mumbling against him.

Imagine if it were you. Once upon a time, you’d hired an intern to work in your office. She was just out of school and, maybe as a favor to her parents, you took her on for a while to help show her the ropes. Fast forward a few years and she’s back. This time she’s a consultant that your boss has brought in to help strategize for the future of the company. Imagine how you might feel when she starts telling you what you could be doing better or more efficiently. What nerve! You knew her when she didn’t know anything!

That must have been just how the people of the crowd felt that day. Jesus had certainly done well for himself. There was the whole feeding of the five thousand thing. But now he was just taking it too far.

I have to admit. As I was preparing to preach this week, I found this text pretty frustrating. Not only was I frustrated to have to be preaching on bread again, but also it started to feel like the message was beginning to get lost in the metaphor. With so much focus on bread, it felt like I was loosing the real focus. I mean, I get it. Jesus is like bread. Through Christ we are nourished and sustained. Without Christ we wander through the world with an insatiable hunger. Yeah, yeah. I get it!

But the thing was, I didn’t really get it.

I started looking for a way out. I found myself thinking; maybe I’ll focus on one of the other texts and just mention the bread thing again. In that desperation I stumbled on the line from the Letter to the Ephesians, and it was like something clicked: “Do not get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit!”

That’s what the bread talk is really all about: “Don’t get drunk with wine… but be filled with the Spirit.”

We have earthly needs. No one can deny that we need our daily bread. But it’s easy to make the mistake of allowing those earthly needs to grow into something more: a kind of temporal drunkenness that distorts our vision of what is true.

Many of you know that I am an advocate for finding ways of bringing the church into new media and technology. I have long argued that churches should have great websites not just because it’s good marketing, but also because it is what I describe as “the new red door”. They are the first things that prospective visitors of the 21st century are likely to see.

I personally hate text messaging. Even with my iPhone, I just get annoyed with typing on the tiny keyboard. And if we’re going to be having a conversation anyway, why don’t we just call one another? But I do it, because I think that it will help me to reach people who might not be reached in any other way.

I blog. I facebook. I twitter. Certainly for fun, but also because I have this sneaking suspicion that these tools will bring me a step closer to finding and sharing the Body of Christ. And like Jesus talking to the crowds about bread, I believe that these tools can help me to meet the people of God where they are.

That was almost disrupted this week when I received a “gift” on facebook. In case you’re not familiar, one of the ways that facebook can be used is to give electronic gifts to people. For example, on someone’s birthday you may send them a little image of a birthday cake. Several months ago, in my circles, people were giving one another “exquisite vestments” – birettas and copes and whatnot. All in the form of little images. There are gifts for nearly every occasion.

And then it came: this week, a friend sent me a “communion” on facebook. Yes, you heard me right. There is now a facebook application that allows you to send virtual bread and wine to your friends.

When Trinity, Wall Street began tweeting the Holy Eucharist, I chuckled. But I thought, it’s really no different a concept than church bells. They’re just announcing to the community that Christ is present. But instead of a local neighborhood, the community to which they announce is the nearly 600 people from around the world who follow them on Twitter.

But virtual communion? At what point does the virtual world become nothing more than the temporal world? To what degree does it share a clearer vision of the Body of Christ, and to what degree does it simply distort what is true?

Perhaps these questions are more explicit in the online world, but they are the questions that face us in our lives as Christians every day. What is real? What is temporal?

Yes, we need our daily bread. But can we live on bread alone? God knows we can’t. Amen.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Of "Shark Week" and bread

9 August 2009
Proper 14B
John 6:35, 41-51

In the name of God: our Creator, Word, and Wisdom. Amen.

Last week, at Vacation Bible School, whenever the youth who served as counselors had a few minutes without children around, the conversation often turned to “Shark Week”. In case you’re not familiar with “Shark Week”, it’s a periodic series on the Discovery Channel. It started a few years ago when shark attacks were getting so much press and the beach-going public was buying into the media-fueled fear.

During “Shark Week” all of the regularly scheduled programming shifts its focus to something shark-related. And just about everything can be shark-related if you try hard enough! During “Shark Week” you’ll still see “Mythbusters”, but the myths that they test will all be about sharks. You’ll also still see “Dirty Jobs” but the jobs will have to do with all the disgusting and dangerous things people have to do when their job is to work with sharks.

It’s become an example of marketing genius. Perhaps it’s the timing – “Shark Week” is often in the summer, when people’s minds invariably turn to the shore. Perhaps it’s just because nothing better is on during the summer reruns. But whatever the reason, “Shark Week” is a huge hit.

But the Discovery Channel didn’t invent the concept of the series. The church was on to that plan long before anyone had heard of “Shark Week”. You may or may not have noticed, but we’re in the midst of a “Shark Week” of sorts here in the church.

For a few weeks now we’ve been talking about bread. Now I know what you’re thinking. Bread?! No wonder church the church is in decline! The world is talking about sharks, and we’re talking about BREAD!

I know. Bread isn’t exactly exciting. No 1970s horror movie was ever made about bread. No one will ever tell the story of death-defying experiences of bread. Bread is just the simple stuff of human hands. It’s the product of our labor and the source of our sustenance. It’s just wheat and water.

But it can be through this most simple and ancient of concoctions that we learn about Christ.

Two weeks ago we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand. With only five loaves of bread the multitudes had their fill.

And then last week the miracle became a metaphor: after giving them their daily bread Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…” Starting from the simple stuff of bread, he begins to change how we see the world.

It’s not exciting the way “Shark Week” is exciting, but it is revolutionary. And like all revolution-making, change the way we see the world-talk, his words – both simple and infinitely complex – “I am the bread of life” – were enough to shake the community who heard them.
“Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

It’s a story not entirely unlike our own. Like the crowds who were fed in the field that day followed Christ to see what might happen next, we, too, are drawn to Christ – at least enough to bring us here on Sunday mornings. And like those crowds, basking in the presence is not always enough for us, either. In our lust for certainty, we, too, find ourselves murmuring. Questioning. Drawn, but never quite sure.

This is the point in the sermon at which the leaders of some other churches might tell you to cast aside that doubt and simply trust in the Lord. (As if it were that simple!) One potential action plan in the face of uncertainty is to deny it. To look the other way until all we can see is the certainty. To treat faith as a tool meant to obfuscate the doubt that intrudes our every day. But I would argue that that kind of faith isn’t so much faith as it is filler. The faith to which we are called is something more. Like bread, it is simple and yet infinitely complex.

Last week, Elizabeth told us about some of the breads that we may choose instead of the Bread of Life: the Bread of Anxiety, the Bread of Weariness, the Bread of Control. They’re only fillers. But in facing our own emptinesses we cling to them. We cling to them because they give us a sense of fullness, even if only for a while. But sooner or later their truth is always revealed; and with it our emptiness reemerges, and all the heavier.

Like the Jews in the Gospel lesson today, we, too, are called to engage our doubt. The questions are all around us, and to know Christ – to really, honestly respond to having been drawn to Christ – we must wade through those questions. We must face our emptiness to find the fullness of the love of God.

This is one of the main job descriptions of the life of the Christian: to face the questions, even in the midst of the fear they inevitably inspire. That is the truest faith. Not turning some blind eye to questions, but immersing ourselves into the unknown. This is the work of discernment: to risk entering the unknown in the faith that God will reveal what is needed.

As a community we, in this parish, are in a season of intentional discernment. As Christians we are always called to be discerning the will of God in our lives, but as human beings we sometimes answer that calling more intentionally than at other times. And now is one of those times of intention in the life of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul.

Tim is in China, engaged in a season of discernment of his own. But we remain, doing the work of discerning where God is now calling us as a parish that is deeply committed to ministry with and for the younger members of the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

And soon Brandon will be leaving to further his education and career through continued study in England. During these past two years he has helped to lead us into a season of stability and strength in the music program. Sometime thereafter a new leader will come among us to aid us in this season of discernment about the ways that we worship and how we can build on the successes of the past two years moving forward.

There are many questions ahead. As I look out across the next year – with almost no sense of who or where we will be at this time next year – I am struck with fear. Though I am afraid, I vow to you that each day I will endeavor to avoid the Bread of Anxiety. I am filled with questions. And though there is so much that I don’t know, I will try not to fill that unknown with the Bread of Control.

We have been promised the Bread of Life. We have a lot of work to do before we can say that we have discerned what that means in our life together. Together we will experience joy beyond our ability to imagine it. We will be sad together. We may grow frustrated with one another. But in moving forward together we will find a deeper understanding of the Bread of Life. It will be embarrassingly simple and infinitely complex. Just like bread. Amen.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Covered Dish Suppers and Knowing the love that surpasses knowledge

26 July 2009
Proper 12B
John 6:1-21

In the name of God. Amen.

So, in just a few weeks I will have lived in northern New Jersey – with the tri-cities of Madison, Chatham, and Morristown as my locus of operation – longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life. Even after these five years, however, I continue to experience culture shock. No matter where I go, or how long I’m away, I’ll always be a kid from Louisiana out on a wild adventure in a strange land.

Culture shock presents itself in some unusual ways: being chastised for holding a door or saying ‘yes ma’am’, not finding the spices or coffees or foods that I require in my local grocery store, driving anywhere…

But lately I’ve been noticing another kind of culture shock: Potluck Suppers. They’re a staple of church life in the South. We call them ‘Covered Dish Suppers’, but the principle is the same: everyone in the community agrees to come together to share a meal. Everyone brings a little something and it adds up to a feast. Perhaps there’s some programming or event around which the meal is centered, but not usually. Usually, it’s just about the meal and the community and the miracles that abound when the two are allowed to blossom into a celebration.

I guess the primary difference between ‘Covered Dish Suppers’ in the South and ‘Potluck Suppers’ in the North is that y’all seem to feel the need to plan it all out. Potluck Suppers, as least as I’ve experienced them in New Jersey, tend to involve sign-up sheets and pre-planned commitments about who will come and who will bring what and – God forbid – sometimes even a collection basket for those who didn’t bring anything.

Covered Dish Suppers, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more informal. Sure, we all know Miss Eula Mae is gonna bring her 7-layer coconut cake, so we don’t bring that, but everything else just kind of happens. Yeah, there may be two trays of deviled eggs, but everyone’s deviled eggs are a little different, so it can’t hurt. And it’s true, tuna casserole with that corn flake topping doesn’t really GO with pot roast, but who cares?!

Covered Dish Suppers aren’t about planning a meal; they’re about making space for grace. It doesn’t work out as neatly as if it had all been planned ahead of time, but works out all the same.

It never really adds up. Everyone is asked to bring enough for themselves. Some people don’t bring anything. Everyone eats more than their share, and there are always leftovers. It just doesn’t add up. We can’t know how it works, but we know it works.

This is Paul’s prayer for the church: that we might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”; that we might know the unknowable.

For me, this is the function of the miracles in the story of Jesus: they remind us not just that there are unknowables in this world, but that through the grace of Christ, they can be known. In our post-modern, western culture we compulsively try to explain away the unknowables in our lives. We can be pretty imaginative in our attempts – explaining how the parting of the Red Sea might have been a drought followed by a flash flood, or explaining away the empty tomb by saying either that Jesus didn’t really die or that his body was stolen.

We do this because miracles make us uncomfortable. Miracles are unknowable and nothing makes us quite as uncomfortable as those things that surpass knowledge.

As Elizabeth told you last week, she and I spent the previous two weeks at the triennial General Convention of The Episcopal Church. One of the highlights at every General Convention is the Integrity Eucharist. Integrity is the organization that lobbies the church for the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Episcopalians. At every General Convention we gather to give thanks for the witness and ministry of LGBT people in a festive celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Over the more than 20 years that this celebration has been happening, the Integrity Eucharist has grown from a nearly secret gathering of about 40 people to this year’s grand affair with more than 1,200 worshippers boldly proclaiming the grace of God’s inclusive love.

One of the most moving moments of the service for me happened during the administration of the sacrament. No one had expected such an overflowing congregation, and there simply wasn’t enough planned music to cover the time necessary to get everyone fed. Probably without really thinking about it, and maybe even out of a little desperation, the music director began playing “Jesus Loves Me” on the piano. With the accidental nature of a Covered Dish Supper the congregation erupted into the most spirited singing of that Sunday School hymn that there ever was. These once-upon-a-time outcasts who had once begged, “Jesus loves me” as a plea to the church, were now singing, “Jesus Love Me” as a proclamation to the church.

Of course most of this congregation isn’t Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. And neither is most of The Episcopal Church. So it might be tempting to abandon the work that Elizabeth and I did at General Convention as “just political”, or even worse: “too political”. But it’s not. Our work was political, but it was also a lot more. It was about knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. It was about every member of this church having the chance to know the truth that “Jesus Loves Me” even when the sum of those words doesn’t seem to add up against the whole of any of our lives.

Look within yourselves. In those loneliest and quietest moments of the night, aren’t there times for you, too, when “Jesus loves me” sounds more like a plea than a proclamation? Aren’t there times when doubts and fears seem overwhelming and the love of Christ seems unknowable?

Andrew, looking at the five loaves and two fish available for the feeding of the five thousand, said to Jesus, “What are they among so many?” Or as one commentator paraphrased him, “How can the tremendous need we see be met by so small an offering?”

Who among us does not often feel that our offering is too small and insignificant to meet the needs of our own lives, much less those needs of the world?

But here is the secret: our offerings are always small. The needs of the world are always great, and our offerings to meet them are ALWAYS small in comparison. But through God, as revealed in community, our offering, though seemingly insignificant, is sufficient. It doesn’t quite add up, but the unknowable becomes known.

Like a proper Covered Dish Supper, we don’t need to plan out all the details. The end result almost certainly won’t be perfect, but it will always be sufficient and even abundant. And sometimes it will even be perfect.

Like the abundant love of Christ showered on all of us who don’t deserve it even a little, life doesn’t always add up right, but it divides up just fine. Amen.