Saturday, June 16, 2018

Even Those Who Pierced Him

I decided to do this summer series in part because I had done it before.  That made it a little easier to think outside of this particular box.  Yet, though I had done it before, since it was based on the questions and suggestions and preferences of the congregation it was still going to be new this time around.  No pulling sermons out of the file and reusing them.  So, it is designed to meet people where they are, with their questions and concerns and hopes and understandings and to help them love the Bible even more.

That’s the other part of why I chose to do this series again, this “Meet the Bible” series.  Because I love the Bible and its narrative flow and vibrant diversity and spiritual depth.  I didn’t want the congregation to see the Bible as tool kit for salvation or for evangelism, merely dealing with the nuts and bolts of hammering out a faith practice (was that a mixed metaphor?)  It can be that.  But it is so much more than that.  It is a work of art designed to inspire.  It is a love letter designed to make us swoon.  It is designed to make us angry and ashamed, to make us hopeful and courageous, to help us find the light in our personal and corporate darkness, and to move us off the center when we buy into the message of the culture that says it is all about us.  It is so much more than a tool kit or a blueprint for right living.  It is about being alive, not just living.

Which means that what I hoped to do in this series is teach the congregation in my care how to use the Bible appropriately.  Some might think that is not all that important these days.  Unless you listen to the news and discover no less than the Attorney General of the United States misusing the Bible to justify a personal and arguably unjust executive policy.  Mr. Sessions attempted to use Romans 13 (be subject to the governing authorities) essentially to tell us not to question our government on anything; neglecting to quote Romans 12 which tells us to hate what is evil - wherever it comes from. Not to mention the countless references to how the people of God are called to treat the immigrant in their midst.  Or the summation of the law endorsed by Jesus that we are to love God and love neighbor with an equal passion and practice.  One thing the Bible is not good for is hiding behind.  

Am I straying into politics?  Maybe.  But the Bible is eminently political.  To pay attention to the Bible is to pay attention to how we live, as individuals and as communities, but also as nations.  It is to pay attention to both the promises and the warnings.  The call to right living and the bestowing of grace for the times we miss the mark.  And it does all of this in such mind-boggling diversity that we sometimes read with mouths agape as we puzzle through the images and the narrative, scratching our heads in wonder and confusion.  It’s no wonder that sometimes the Bible is used for selfish purposes, since it seems you can use it to justify almost any position, no matter how outlandish.  You can use it to condemn any thinking, any action, any person that you don’t like for some reason.  That’s the danger of the misuse of the Bible.  And the only check on this rampant misunderstanding is the Bible itself, and the people of God who have devoted centuries to understanding it - gotten it wrong many times, but can usually come to a new and deeper truth with time.  Not without some angst and disruption, however.  But then angst and disruption seems to be the lot of the people of faith.  

Angst and disruption seems a good segue into what I’m really supposed to be about this weekend.  I’m still, as I mentioned earlier, dealing with the things that puzzle you, the things that trouble you, the things that down right confuse the heck out of you.  Number one on the top of that list is the single most troubling book in the whole Bible.  And that’s saying something.  There is trouble on every page.  Even the Jesus we know and love can throw us a curve ball now and then that leaves us whiffing at the plate without a clue.  But for most of us that “here be dragons” section of the Bible we stay away from has to be the Book of Revelation.  Because there are dragons in it!

Revelation 1:1-7 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. 4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

No dragons yet.  The book starts with a declaration of what it is.  Actually, it starts with a declaration about who it is. Who it is about.  Who it is from.  Revelation is fundamentally not a what but a who.  It is less a drama and more a character study.  It is less a history - ancient, modern or future - and more a curriculum vitae.  It is less about us and what will happen or not happen to us, and more about Him and what He promises will happen.  

There is so much about this book that is shrouded in mystery.  The author calls himself John.  Tradition says it is the Apostle John.  But as early as the second century there was some doubt about that.  The text of Revelation is so different from the other writings that bear the name of John that it seems to come from another hand completely.  Most historians believe that John died in Ephesus, and gathered a community of believers there who actually wrote the gospel and letters that bear his name.  John in Revelation says he in on the isle of Patmos, believed by some to be a penal colony, a place of exile for political prisoners of the Roman Empire.  The truth is we don’t know. 

Most believe that Revelation was written in the mid-nineties AD.  Some think it was much earlier.  It was written during a time of persecution against the followers of Christ.  It is a word from this Christ who says, in essence, I’ve got this.  But that word is couched in a language we only barely understand these days - apocalyptic.  Much has been made of the similarities between Revelation and Daniel, for example, or Ezekiel or other prophetic works.  Images and symbols, codes and numbers that only make sense in this language system.  The attempts at translating this apocalyptic drama into something that fits history have been many and various.   And continuous, at least for last hundred years or so.  Like so much of the Bible, Revelation has been twisted so outrageously that it has been used to condemn almost anything you’d like to consider, and to warn of the dangers of almost any group of people or even individuals.  There are those who argue that the drama depicted in the bulk of the book is an ancient one, the early church’s struggle with the empire of Rome.  Others argue that it is a depiction of current history with the characters pointing toward tyrants and politicians of various stripes.  Still others consider that the references are all about a yet to come historical event for which we need to wait and watch.  Which is it?  Well, in a way, it could be all of these.  

Not that I hold much credence to the momentary end of all that is and battle of Armageddon on our doorstep.  But that the drama depicts the constant battle of human sinfulness that seeks to take the place of God and vanquish the enemy of the day.  It is a story that is told again and again and again.  Claiming that there is one historical figure, who lived or lives or will live to oppose God is to underestimate the power of sin in human existence.  There are times when the beast is me, the anti-Christ is me, the harlot is me.  And maybe you?  Maybe not in such cosmic, world destroying ways, but in smaller yet no less destructive self-centered ways.  And even those of us who pierced Him will see Him, that the promise, that’s the hope.

The theme of the book of Revelation is God’s got this.  No matter how it might look at any given point in history.  But a clear sub-theme it oriented toward us: Hold on.  The biblical word is endure.  Hold on to faith.  Hold on to hope. Hold on to the Way of Christ.  Hold on to hospitality.  Hold on to invitation and inclusion.  Hold on to justice for oppressed.  Hold on.  The point being, I believe, is that this is enough for us to be going on with instead of wasting our time trying to identify the characters in the drama of Revelation.  Hold on to truth.  Hold on.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

He Sent Me

Annual Conference is over for another year.  And I survived.  Yeah, I confess, it’s not my most favorite time of the year.  Not the event I look forward to the most.  But it comes with the territory.  Because I am an ordained clergy person of the United Methodist Church I am required (yes, required) to attend annual conference annually - hence the name.  It’s a business meeting.  A family reunion.  It’s a meet and greet.  A time for worship and the annual question of your call to ministry and service. It’s a pep rally and motivational seminar.  It’s all that and much more.  And much less.  For good or for ill it is the functioning of the institution of the church to gather together and fulfill obligations and shore up the edges.  

The theme this year was “See All the People.”  You know, from that old rhyme thing we did as kids, with our fingers.  “Here is the church, here is the steeple.  Open the doors and see all the people.”  And then we’d wiggle our fingers around like the people in the pews were worms in a bucket, fish bait for the task of catching fish for Jesus.  See all the people.  It was a call to a renewal of an evangelistic fervor, but to do it in a way that includes, that doesn’t ignore, doesn’t overlook anyone.  See All the people.  

We’re a church wrestling with All these days, which people we can see, which people we can include, which people we can allow to lead us.  We’re not the only ones wrestling with this.  Not the only church, not the only institution.  But we’re the ones called to pay attention to the wriggling bait bucket of humanity and see all the people.  So it is especially poignant this year.  

The added irony for me this year was the context of the Conference.  We met, again, in the Indianapolis Convention Center, a wonderful facility in the heart of the downtown.  A massive structure able to accommodate a variety of events all at the same time and not feel like we’re bumping up against one another.   Yet, because we were told all week to See All the People, I purposely strolled out of the boundaries of our corridor to see what else was going on in the building.  On the opposite end of the Convention center - sixteen miles away if you walk it (well, it seemed that much to me anyway) was Pop Con.  Other cities call this a Comic Con, but in Indy it is Pop Con, popular culture.  Comic book worlds, yes, but also Manga and Anime, that uniquely Japanese approach to graphic arts, and movies of various genres, the video gaming world and other cultural icons.  I walked through superheroes, some of whom have gone to seed  a little bit, through Sailor Moon and her cohorts, stormtroopers and game characters.  They were young, and they were loud and they were friendly and excited and enjoying themselves tremendously. 

Plus, because I’m cheap, I borrowed my wife’s parking tag for the IUPUI Faculty and Staff parking lot and walked the few blocks south to the convention center.  And in so doing I passed by the park that had been converted to be the ending festival point for the Pride Parade that was scheduled to come through downtown Indianapolis at the same time as we were ordaining the next group of clergy to serve in our churches.  And if I was underdressed for Pop Con because I wasn’t wearing an elaborate costume of many layers and accessories (some of the biggest swords you’ve ever seen, for example), then I was way over dressed for the Pride Festival and certainly no where near colorful enough to be a part of those who gathered there.  Again, they were young and loud and friendly and excited and enjoying themselves tremendously.  

As I sat in worship with my crowd, older, quieter, not quite as friendly or excited, (except for those who were supporting the ones to be ordained) and I wondered if they were enjoying themselves.  Tremendously, or even just a little.  The camera would scan the podium during the sermon and the ritual and the singing, and the august dignitaries assembled there didn’t really seem to be expressing joy to me.  At least in comparison to those a few corridors away.  And I wondered if we were somehow to mix this crowd with either of those other crowds what would happen?  Would we see all the people?  Or would we overlook them, turn up our noses at them, shake our heads at them?  

And then I wondered, forgive me but I wondered, which crowd Jesus would come and join.  Which party He would attend.  Of course, He would come to all, did come to all today.  But if He was in the flesh again for today and limited by the physicality of space and time, then where would He be?

Forgive me.  All of that seems a long way from what I’m supposed to be dealing with in this space.  We are just barely into our summer series called Meet the Bible.  And I’m trying to respond to your questions and comments about the Bible in these weeks.  Last week we dealt with the problem of interpretation.  In future weeks we’ll look at specific puzzling bits, like the whole book of Revelation, or the troublesome passages we still wonder about today, and some general themes from the Bible that keep coming back again and again.  

But this week I’m supposed to be dealing with questions concerning the Old Testament vs the New Testament.  Specifically the image of God in the Old as a God of war and Judgement and the image of God in the New as a God of Love and Grace.  But also the question was raised about how the Old Testament leads to the New, prophesies in the Old that prefigure the New.  Which I heard as a question about the purpose of the Old Testament in light of the New.  

Truth be told, I can’t really resolve all that stuff in one blog post or one sermon.  I can only point out some things, can only make some hints, some stabs in the dark.  But I thought the best place to approach a response to both of those lines of questions would be from Jesus.  Jesus talked about scripture a lot.  In some places He was affirming what was said, in other places He seemed to be changing, or deepening or raising higher what was said.  But He loved the scriptures and wants us to love them too.  They define Him, He seems to be saying.  And can define us too.  If we can see it, see all the Word.

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Fulfilled, He said.  Today this scripture has been fulfilled.  What does that mean?  Well, we could debate that word for a long time, and many have over the years.  But certainly there is a connection, a continuation and an application.  This is not just a word on the page, in the scroll to be read and pondered.  But this is a living Word, a Word enacted, a Word incarnated in His flesh and then because we agreed to be followers of Him, in ours as well.  

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled, doesn’t mean that the work is done, but that the Word is set loose in the world.  That Good news is alive and at work, that freedom and healing can be found, is made available to the ones who need it the most, the ones the world thinks least deserving and least likely to receive it.  

Certainly there are those who believe that the God depicted in the Old Testament would be roaming the streets downtown today pronouncing judgement and condemnation.  Would be closing doors and assigning shame and blame.  But the God of the Old Testament that Jesus knew would be proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  How can that be?  How can there be judgement and mercy both?  How can there be a call to righteousness and an offer of grace both?

Jesus spoke of judgement too.  We forget that.  But His judgement seemed to be reserved for those who refused to see all the people.  The ones who wanted to cast judgement themselves, who wanted His job.  In the end, Jesus didn’t see a disconnect from the God He knew and the Messiah He was.  He was sent to fulfill the Word that was given, a Word of righteousness and grace.  He was sent to see all the people.  You too.  And me.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Wings of the Morning

The sun shone brightly this morning, sooner than I had hoped, I must confess, but gloriously all the same.  A beautiful day awaited.  A day to be seized, to be filled with tasks and challenges and opportunities.  What’s that prayer someone wrote about mornings?  Dear God, so far today I haven’t hurt anyone, I haven’t gotten angry or hateful, so far today I haven’t missed any opportunities or caused anyone to lose faith because of my words and my actions.  So far, O Lord, I’ve been obedient to Your will and Your way.  But I’m about to get out of bed, so I really need Your help!  Amen.  

Ah mornings, they are so full of potential.  Paths radiate out in so many directions.  Which one will you take?  Where will you end up when the sun sets in the evening?  Will you be closer to where you hoped to be than when you started?  As La Donna was saying good bye today, heading off to yet another meeting, another conference responsibility, I said we need to make sure that we don’t let our vacation time this summer fritter away, that w really take time for ourselves.  She said, that’s why we need to make a list.  A list.  Her answer to anything and everything.  Make a list. Others would say make a plan.  Chart a course.  Live intentionally.  Live alive.  But how do we do that?  What tools do we have to make our way in the world in a way that helps us stay on track, stay aware and alive?

We are starting our summer preaching series this weekend.  It’s a series that you asked for.  Well, you who are worshipers at Southport UMC, who responded to a survey I put out a few months ago.  It’s in two parts.  Part one is called “Meet the Bible” and Part two is called “Ask the Pastor.”  The guiding questions were designed to elicit the kinds of questions or confusions or just general wonderings about the Bible and about Church.  Church includes faith questions as well as practices, what do we believe and how do we act, those sorts of things.  But that’s part two and will come up sometime in mid-July.  

We’re starting with the Bible.  Or, as I’ve been alluding to so far, the list, the chart, the guide to the path we could take to live intentionally.  “Thy Word is a light unto my path and a lamp unto my feet.”  I asked about parts that confused folks, I asked about favorite parts.  I asked about parts that maybe we don’t need any more.  I asked about anything else that folks wanted to know about the Bible.  And I got all kinds of answers, responses, questions and concerns.  It was great.  There were specifics, some of which we’ll deal with in this space.  But there were also some general questions or perhaps uncertainties.  One of which was that problem of looking at the Old Testament and then the New Testament and wondering if they were talking about a different God.  That’s on the list.  We’ll look at that next week. 

The other general question was basically this: how in the world do you understand this thing?  No one actually used those words, let me hasten to insert here.  That is what I was hearing from a variety of directions.  One direction in particular that more than one person pointed to was how does someone look at a biblical passage and come up with one meaning and someone else look at that same passage and find something completely different?  

Ah yes, the problem of interpretation.  William Shakespeare wrote “the devil can quote scripture for his purpose.” Even he knew that a variety of interpretations can bring us to something far from what God intended in the Word.  Some times what we read and what we are told aren’t really on the mark, on the path.  So, how do we know?  How do we stay faithful to the text, to read what is there and not what we would like to be there?  Tricky questions indeed, and ones I probably won’t answer to everyone’s satisfaction either here or in the sermon that results from this work.  Sorry.  

In fact, in my usual tendency to avoid the real questions, I want to present a completely different approach to the issue of interpretation.  And it grows out of the text that I chose to preach from this week.  Take a look:

Psalm 139:1-24 O LORD, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you. 19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me-- 20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

What I normally do in this space now is wrestle with the meaning of this text.  I attempt, with the help of the tradition of the Church, to interpret the text.  But let me ask a different question this time.  What does this psalm tell us about interpretation?  I know, kinda obscure.  But look at it again.  This time ask yourself “what is being interpreted here?”  

My thesis in this wrestling with the process of interpretation is that the Bible is more interested in interpreting us than it is in being interpreted itself.  The Letter to the Hebrews (or the book, or the sermon, or the essay called Hebrews depending on your interpretation) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)” Living and active, it says there.  What we read is not a dead text, not just words on a page full of dusty ideas and ancient references.  No, this word is alive. Indeed it is the means by which creation was made.  God spoke everything that we see into existence.  And it is what was made flesh and walked among us, full of grace and truth.  The Word interprets us as we seek to interpret the Word.  Which means is a good way to test whether we are on the right track in finding the meaning in the text is what is revealed about us?  What is the challenge presented to us?  What is threatening our comfortable place in the world?  If what we interpret in the text is only confirming what we already know, then chances are we aren’t digging deeply enough.  Chances are we aren’t listening hard enough.  

Psalm 139 asks God to search us, to dig deep in us and find who we are and who we need to be as followers of the Word.  It admits weaknesses, times of wanting to flee, times of being so angry we think it is a good thing, all that hate.  It admits to living in darkness.  But also knows that there is no darkness that can hide us from the Word, hide us from the God who speaks us into being.  We are exposed by the Word.  We are transformed by the Word.  We made alive in the Word.

This morning, every morning is another chance to fly.  Take the wings of the morning, only don’t fly away from God’s Word, fly into it.  Fly with it.  Fly because of it.  The Word we strive to understand is the Word that already understands us.  Understands us better than we do ourselves.  Knows what we will say before we say it.  Knows us.  This Word knows us. What better way to greet a day than knowing that we are known?


Saturday, May 26, 2018

“Processions and Performances” Festival of Homiletics 2018 Washington D.C.

I was wrong.  I led you astray.  My apologies.  I blame Anthony Bailey, to be honest.  He got me riled up with the Silence that leads to Songs of Protest.  So, I told you that I was going to join in a protest march last night.  Me and a couple thousand of my closest friends.  Well, we gathered last night.  In two churches that sit side by side in the downtown area of Washington D.C.  National City Christian Church was the host site for the worship before the event - or worship as the beginning of the event.  I got there 30 minutes early, plenty of time, I thought, to find a small corner in this 1,500 seat sanctuary.  But no, I was too late.  So I and a few hundred friends I didn’t know, toddled over to the Luther Place Memorial Church across the street.  It was also a venue of the Festival and I thought I’d go the whole event without even going inside.  But there I was.  

This is the church, and this is us watching a live stream from next door.  Isn’t technology great?  It was almost like I was there.  Except when it was buffering, or the sound dropped out, or the bird in the sanctuary flew around and caused everyone around me to laugh and point so we couldn’t hear the speakers.  But, almost like being there.

After about an hour of speakers reading a part of the declarations of the Reclaiming Jesus document (Google it, it’s a powerful document about what and who Jesus is and calls us to be and to believe in and act on.  Powerful), we then prepared to march.  Except we weren’t marching, we were told.  This wasn’t a march. This wasn’t a protest.  This wasn’t a reaction of anger and frustration.  It may have been born out of that, but we were not to be about that.  Instead, we were encouraged to fill our hearts, fill our souls with love.  Love for all God’s children.  Even those we disagree with.  Even those who we believe are misrepresenting Jesus and the faith. And we aren’t marching, we were told, we’re processing.  Processing, long o.  Pro - cesssing.  Like a religious ceremony.  Like a wedding, we were the bride of Christ, processing to commit ourselves to Him again in these perilous times.  

As we gathered, my usual grumpiness came to the fore.  These clergy were loud and sometimes rude and not paying attention to anyone but themselves and their friends.  Pictures were being taken as we stood there waiting to move.  But the vast majority of the ones I saw were selfies. Not recording the event, but recording themselves at the event.  Sigh.  It was going to be a long night.

Candles were handed out, electric candles, mostly little tea lights that you float in water for a lovely table top display.  But in our hands they were signs of the Presence.  But then, in the right frame of mind anything can be a sign of the Presence.  Like a sparrow, unexpectedly caught inside because of a wrong turn and now was flitting from rafter to rafter in the old Lutheran Church.  But, of course, they ran out of candles.  So many of us didn’t have one.  We were encouraged to download a candle app on our phones and carry that.  So I did.  A flickering flame, that actually moved with the motion of the phone in my hand.  What won’t they think of? 

Finally we started, escorted and traffic stopped by the DC Metropolitan Police force, we set off from the churches across Thomas Circle Park, down Vermont Avenue to K Street, around McPherson Square on down Vermont to Lafayette Square, entering at the corner by the statue of General Kosciuszko and then through the Square to Pennsylvania Avenue.  We were stopped on the north side of street for a while, but then allowed to cross.  We were standing, actually at the backdoor of the White House.  A tour guide I overheard the day before said, not everyone realizes that the House faces south.  So we were back door visitors.  And we heard the declarations again and then prayed, individually and then collectively.  We sang the Lord’s Prayer, we spoke the Lord’s Prayer and then we sang This Little Light of Mine.

Here’s the thing.  We were told to be silent as we marched, I mean processed.  I thought, yeah, right.  But it happened.  For the most part. Quiet.  Silent even.  There were times I heard folks stumbling on the uneven pavement, tennis shoes squeaking as we walked.  It was odd. That many preachers silent.  People, tourists and natives alike, pulled out their phones and took video and photos of us.  Someone is scrolling through their phone after their trip to the Nation’s Capital and there I am.  In the crowd.  Quiet.  It was moving.  It was significant.  It was real.

Sometimes we have to put feet to our faith, to the biblical text.  That’s what Anna Carter Florence told us this morning the last speaker/preacher of the Festival.  She had much to tell us about performing the Word.  About not letting these words in the Bible be just words.  Take them out of the box, out from behind the covers and walk around in them.  She actually advocates treating them like Reader’s Theatre.  Take different parts, read it out loud.  Listen to the Word.  And all along the way, we are asking, what is the text trying to do?  Do in us?  Do to us?  

Then she took at look at the book of Job in the Old Testament and proceeded to blow my mind as how we are supposed to look at this drama.  Or at least how we are invited to look at this drama.  We still get to choose.  We always get to choose.  But some choices are more transforming than others.  Some choices get us closer to the truth, no the Truth, than others.  Dr. Carter Florence said that Job was supposed to help us watch our language.  What how we talk to others, how we share faith.  How, most importantly, we console the suffering.  That, in fact, the bulk of the book of Job is a “how not to” manual for preachers and comforters in lots of settings.  

In other words, she said, don’t console out of your certainties.  Don’t fill yourself with righteous anger.  But with love.  Process through the world, lighting a candle and keeping quiet as we move, and pouring out love on all those we meet.  

So, I will.  I’m writing this in the airport, waiting for a flight to Boston.  I’m not coming home just yet.  Conference - continuing education - just turned into a short vacation.  A holiday with my daughter Maddie.  I’m flying to Boston to spend Memorial Day weekend with her, and then I’ll drive her car home.  Because we need another car in our driveway.  No, because she doesn’t need the expense or have the space in the city where she lives.  So, I’m going to help her out.  And spend time with her.  And show her the candle someone handed me at the end of the march saying, you need a candle to hold.  

Indeed I do.  Indeed I do.


PS - I'm here in Boston, actually Brookline, with Maddie.  Needed her WiFi to post this.  Happy Memorial Weekend everyone!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Building Walls or Tables" Festival of Homiletics 2018 Washington D.C.

The penultimate day of the Festival.  A sad day, in a way.  Something good has been happening here.  I'm not completely sure what it was, to be honest.  The real fruit of an experience like this takes a while to ripen.  My prayer as I get ready to leave (but not for home this time - more on that later)is that the Spirit makes sure I heard what I was here to hear, the Word God has for me at this point in my life and life's journey, whether that be a Word for me as a person or a pastor, as a follower or a leader, or a Word I am called to pass on to others, to you, to my church, to my community or world.  My prayer is that this time be fruitful.  And I realize that this is in part up to me.  What do I do with this abundance of knowledge and experience, of wisdom and inspiration.  Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton, said this morning that we have two options when we have an abundance, we can build a wall to protect it or build a bigger table to share it.  Personally, I believe the last thing our country needs is more walls.

But the day didn't begin with Dr. Barreto. It began with worship at Metropolitan AME with a sermon from Dr. David Lose, who is pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, formerly a teacher of preaching at Luther Seminary and the author of my current favorite book on preaching, Preaching at the Crossroads.  Dr. Lose preached from Isaiah 55 (Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat) and from Matthew 20:1-16 (the workers in the vineyard and the first shall be last and the last shall be first) and gave us ... nothing.  

Nothing?  Yeah, nothing.  But not the nothing of insignificance, but the nothing of grace.  In an era of political promises of everything, or the everything that we're told we should want or need, God tells us that nothing is enough.  Seriously.  Nothing is enough.  Read that a couple of time.  There is nothing that will be enough, to serve God, to love God, to honor God, to bribe God, to earn God's favor.  Nothing will get us that.  Read it again.  God says nothing is enough.  You have nothing, let me fill you with all you need.  You didn't work long, let me pay you as if you did.  What do you have that is of ultimate value?  Nothing?  Perfect!  God does some of God's best work with nothing.

From there I took my nothing and went to National City Christian Church, to hear Dr. Anthony Bailey preach on silence.  Hmm, I'm sensing a theme developing.  Bailey is originally from Barbados, but now pastors in Canada at the Parkdale United Church in Ottawa.  And he has a rich tenor singing voice that he used.  Which made sense since he preached from a song text.  It was Mary's song in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-55, we call it the Magnificat).  But he was preaching about silence, and referenced Elijah, hiding in the mountain afraid for his life when Queen Jezebel wanted him dead, and how God appeared, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in "the sound of sheer silence."  (I Kings 19:12).  The sound of silence.  Bailey went back and forth playing with the ideas of sound and of silence.  At times he seemed to be saying find God in the silence.  At other times he said out of the silence comes a song, a song of protest, a song of hope and transformation and God is in that song.  I wanted to raise my hand.  Which is it, Anthony?  Is God in the silence?  Or is God in the song?  But I was afraid the answer was yes.  

That's how I would have answered it.  Yes.  Silence, because we've said too much, been too loud, been too certain about who is right and who is wrong and who is saved and who is damned.  Silence because our shouting and speaking and posting and out tweeting hasn't brought God any closer to the people, and closer to us.  Silence.  Because God dwells in the humility of silence.  God dwells in the absence of self.  The speaking self.  We are too often Homo Loquens - the speaking humans.  And sometimes we need to be silent and let God take root, let God plant a seed in us.  Like Mary.  Let the Spirit come over us in silence and acceptance. Then we can sing a song of protest.  A song of the vision of the Kingdom of God.  Out of silence comes the bridge between this world and the Kingdom of God.

Bridge?  From songs to bridges?  Well, songs are made to be sung together.  Sure the solo is great, but the real show stoppers are the choral numbers where the whole ensemble takes the stage and brings the house down.  And even the spectators tap their feet and sing along, whether they know the words or not, whether they speak the language or not.  And that's what makes it great.

Or so says Dr. Barreto.  He spoke on Preaching and Race.  OK, he's a New Testament guy not a preaching guy.  But he could work on his titles.  Preaching and race.  Yawn.  Except it wasn't a yawner.  It was a protest song to rival Mary's song.  Why is the worship hour the most segregated hour of the week in our country?  What are we missing when certain voices aren't heard?  And how do we celebrate difference instead of asking for conformity?  The Old Testament law is a remarkable document of hospitality and inclusion, why do we focus on the things that divide us?

I know, it's more complicated than that.  But time is running out.  I am due back at National City Church for a special evening service.  The theme is Reclaiming Jesus, and many famous preachers (including Bishop Michael Curry just back from preaching at a wedding somewhere in England) and other Christian leaders are gathering for worship and then a candlelight vigil and march to the White House.  Reclaiming Jesus means that some of us aren't happy with the way Jesus has been co-opted by a segment of the Christian community that wants to emphasize difference as bad, to build walls and not bigger tables, to call some of the human community animals and to claim that things like immigration reform are not biblical issues.  We think some have misrepresented Jesus to the world at large and we want to stand against that.  So, we'll worship and pray, preach and probably sing as we march through the capital city to say Jesus is bigger than some have portrayed.  And I want to be in that number.

Why?  What difference will it make to this issue?  What change will it bring to the struggles in this country over issues of hospitality and acceptance?  Probably none.  It's a foolish act, some will say.  Heck, I'll say it.  It's pretty foolish to think a bunch of preachers ad other Christians marching through Washington singing Jesus songs will make a lick of difference in the world of politics and race.  But as Luke Powery, Dean of Duke Chapel, told us this afternoon, maybe our best bet is to be a fool for Christ.  

And Dr David Lose came back this afternoon to remind us that we like to believe we are Homo Sapiens - Humans who think.  And actually the proper scientific designation is Homo Sapiens Sapiens - Humans who think about our thinking!  But Lose says it isn't our thinking that makes us who we are.  No, he argues, we are Homo Narrans - Humans who tell stories.  It is the story we live by.  It is the story that defines us.  And I am one of those who believes that we as a nation need a better story than the one we are writing at this time.  And I just might know the story we should tell.


PS.  I neglected to give thanks to the one who allowed me to be here this week and experience all of this stuff I've been writing about.  And it is an especially egregious error because today is our 38th Anniversary.  Happy Anniversary La Donna.  Thank you for who you are and the blessing you are to me.  Love you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"Demons and Praying" The Festival of Homiletics 2018, Washington D.C.

Mark 9:28-29 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "This kind can come out only through prayer." 

Day three of the Festival began with sunshine.  The storms of the night before had cleared and the sky was almost painfully blue and bright.  But I made my way to the opening worship with anticipation and hope.  Another new venue today.  I started at National City Christian Church.  I went to hear the pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, preach.  She is the first woman senior pastor in that historic church's 200 year history.  And she represented us well.  

I got to the church early and climbed the massive stairs to the main entrance, only to find it closed.  
Those were the stairs, that guy was still sitting there as I climbed.  And there was a young woman, in pink running gear getting her steps in, up and down those stone stairs on this bright early morning.  But we were locked out.  Left waiting for someone to come and open the church.  I wasn't that early, maybe 30 minutes or so.  But still no open door.  Curious.  Finally, a few minutes before we were due to start the morning worship, someone opened the door.  We few who waited at the top of those stairs were let in.  Only to find the sanctuary and other gathering room already occupied.  Turns out, few use the front doors of this church, except those like the young woman in pink who use it for exercise.  Others come in a lower door and take the elevator to the sanctuary.

I grumbled.  As I do.  Maybe too much.  And here I decided is the time and space for my annual Festival grumble.  We clergy don't know how to worship.  We just don't.  I'm often embarrassed by the antics of "my colleagues" who stumble into worship late and then gawk around at the fancy building, even pulling their phones out to take pictures during the service, and chat with their neighbors about various and sundry, and - and this is the worst - don't just forget to turn off their phones, but will actually take a call during the sermon!  I've heard them a couple of times this week.  "Hello?," they'll say, somewhat quietly, but still loud enough to be heard by most in the room, as they walk out.  Geeze.  We're so used to being in charge, some argue, that we have forgotten how to follow.  We've forgotten how to be present.  Others tell me I'm being overly sensitive, that this is a special thing, a Festival, not their normal behavior for worship surely.  Yeah, right, and don't call me Shirley.

I did that rant because of Rev. Gaines-Cirelli.  Blame it on her.  She based her sermon on Isaiah 30, where the prophet is confronted by those who don't want to hear the truth, who don't want to hear the challenge of the faith.  They say, lighten up, preacher.  Tell us smooth things.  I love that phrase.  Verse 10 says, do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusion.  We want an illusion, we rarely want truth.  We want the easy way, the comfortable way, the way that won't make us have to change much.  Well, Ginger told us this morning, stop preaching smooth things!  We've all done it, she proclaimed, we've all softened the blow, eased up, not asked for, not expected much.  Not told the truth because it would make people mad and they might stop coming, might stop giving.  So better pander, better tickle the ear, soothe the troubled waters.  Do I dare?  Do any of us dare not preaching smooth things?  Even when we know the world is dying because of it? Because we've told them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  Not what the Word of Lord really says.  Do we dare?

I'm not sure, frankly.  It's hard work.  From there I went back to Metropolitan AME church to hear one of my favorite preachers at the festival.  Dr. Craig Barnes is now president of Princeton Seminary, but has served various Presbyterian Churches in the East, including in Washington DC.  He was ten years in our nations capital and he told us in his afternoon lecture that there were a number of politicians who worshiped in his church, and yes, they sat on the left or on the right as befitted their party affiliation.  Seriously?  

For worship he chose Mark 9 and the story of casting out the demon after the transfiguration.  The one the disciples struggled with.  The one that they argued over, disappointed Him over.  He had given them authority again and again to help people get rid of their demons, but here they were unable.  We're supposed to help people with their demons.  It's one of our main jobs, according to Mark's gospel anyway.  Preach the Gospel and cast out demons.  That's pretty much it.  But we can't.  We struggle.  Partly because we don't believe in demons any more.  All people really need is a good therapist.  Or a life coach.  Just work a little harder, you'll be fine.  

You know who still believes in demons?  No, not the crazy people who see devils behind every bush.  Not the lazy Christians who simply want to find someone else to blame for their own sinfulness.  No, the ones who still believe in demons are the folks in AA, and other recovery programs like that.  A part of the nature of those efforts is that there is something about which I am powerless to change.  Powerless.  Many in the world, many of us, are in the grip of things beyond our control  Calling them demons doesn't empower them any more than calling them illnesses or addictions diminishes them.  Nomenclature doesn't matter.  No really.  Call it what you will.  Evil.  Demonic. Powers and Principalities.  The System.  Empire.  We are powerless before it.  Powerless.  Why can't we cast them out?  We've been trying really hard.  We've got all these programs, all these efforts.  Why Jesus.  These kind can only come out through prayer.  

See that's the only power we have over evil.  The power of prayer.  We take them to Jesus.  Those under the influence of power beyond their control.  It's all we have in the end.  Take them to Jesus.  Take them, not send them, take them.  

We weren't done with demons.  Dr Barnes was back after lunch with an analysis of Matthews version of the Temptation story.  Here the chief demon was tempting Jesus by, Barnes argues, playing on the anxieties we all have.  I fully intend to steal, I mean learn from this lecture for my own sermon series soon, so I don't want to spill all the beans here.  Except to say that Craig makes a convincing case.  The temptations play on the anxieties we all feel, especially in a world of crazy politics like we have right now.  And when we are tempted to ease our anxieties with false securities, false hopes, false methodologies, when we substitute real needs for truth and freedom for security and the comfortable lie that all will be well if we get rid of them (fill in your own them), then we succumb to the wiles of the devil and abandon the cause of Christ.  Make no mistake, what He was wrestling with in the desert those 40 days was not just about Him, but about all of us.  It was His incarnation that brought about the anxiety, His humanity which was just like ours.  Those are our anxieties, our fears, our limitations and our proclivity to settle for less than the Kingdom of God.

Which is what Father Richard Rohr came to tell us in our final session of the day.  He too talked about demons.  He too pointed out how prevalent they are in our world.  Not as imps with pitchforks and magic powers.  But as forces beyond our control.  Father Rohr reminded us of the classic Catholic moral theology that suggested that evil has three sources - the world, the flesh and the devil.  And that we have spent almost all of our time on the middle one.  The flesh.  We talk about, preach about, hold confession about, the sin of our hearts and our lives and our bodies.  Our individual sin.  And the result of that is a screwed up notion of what evil really is, he argues.  The sin, the evil of the world, is the evil that is tolerated corporately.  There are things we accept as a body that we won't accept from individuals.  An individual kills and it is evil and sin.  A nation kills and it is war and unfortunately necessary.  An individual steals and it is evil and sin.  A corporation steals and it is how business is done.  

On the other end of the scale, the devil, Rohr argues that the demonic is sin that is worshiped.  The Old Testament is pretty clear that sin is at heart all idolatry.  And yet we seem to be encouraged to worship our nation, worship our family, worship our way of life.  

Too big to fail is an act of idolatry, Rohr argues.  Clarity is the opposite of truth, often the enemy of truth, says Barnes.  Stop preaching smooth things, says Gaines-Cirelli.  Frankly, I'm not sure what to do with all of this.  Except that it seems true that a casual approach to worship and to prayer is not the solution we need.  These kind of demons only come with prayer.

Pray with me. For our church caught in a struggle with demons.  For our nation, all to willing to succumb to the easy lure of the demonic.  For our world, powerless before that which will consume us all.  For us.  All of us.  Each of us.  Me.  You.  Pray for us.  It's the only way out.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Meat, Story and Thunderstorms," Festival of Homiletics 2018, Washington D.C.

Day two of the Festival brought rain.  A light drizzly rain that didn't really soak you, yet dripped and dropped on you every time you went out.  A little messy, a little humid, a little inconvenience, but in the end it didn't dampen the spirit.  And today was full of the Spirit.  Maybe it was because all the sessions I attended were held at Metropolitan AME Church near the corner of 15th and M Street, a few blocks north of the Washington Monument.
A historic building and community of faith.  The pastor who welcomed us said it was the oldest property and business continually held by African Americans in our capital city.  Frederick Douglass was a member there.  Many famous African Americans and other notables preached there, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.  The Rose Window at the front of the building, or the back of the sanctuary, depicted many significant events in Black Church history, not just the AME tradition.  But Richard Allen who walked out of St George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia when we wasn't allowed to preach and free black slaves were not allowed to receive communion with their white brothers and sisters, is depicted in that window as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  But the oldest date in the window references a different event that helped shape the consciousness of the AME style of worship and preaching.  
You can't make it out in this picture, but it is 1739, when John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London felt his heart strangely warmed and realized that salvation was not just a head thing, but a heart thing too.  Today was heady, to say the least, but heart warming at the same time.

We began with Walter Brueggemann, the 85 year old professor of Hebrew Scriptures and irascible prophet of the whole church.  I guess at 85 you can be as irascible as you want.  And he came, as his introducer said, to trouble the waters of complacency in the church. His sermon was titled "Meat, Anxiety, Injustice" and he took as his text the story in I Kings about Solomon and his excesses when it came to feeding his entourage.  The numbers of animals it took to feed the royal party was staggering.  And it was also clear that this largess didn't trickle down to the hungry ones underneath, or even the workers who slaughtered the herds of oxen and hunted the flocks of sheep and game birds.  And then Brueggemann flipped the script on us and told us about Jesus' depiction of this story in a little parable about building bigger barns and the fool who only wanted his own happiness.  He was going to share, perhaps, he was going to do good, possibly, as soon as he had enough, as soon as got more.  But then he died.  The quest for more is bringing this country to a ruin, he said, even as it brings each citizen the anxiety of wanting.  Get out of the anxiety game, Brueggemann warned, it will kill you.  And, when we are anxious and greedy, we can't do justice.

His words rang in the rafters of that old church.  And echoed in the souls of all the hearers.  We were unsettled, to say the least.  To pick up the refrain and sing the next verse, Walter was followed by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, founding pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, a church built on the foundation of social justice, working with the marginalized in housing and healthcare and education.  Hale brought us a familiar word delivered with passion and power and more unsettling: "What Does the Lord Require of Us?" based on Micah 6.  The answer wasn't a surprise, to us or to Micah's initial hearers.  Yet we still want to ask.  Maybe we're hoping for a different answer.  Something easier.  Something simpler.  But Hale, after cataloging a nation off the rails in so many ways, she held that answer before us.  And even reminded us of Micah's exasperation in presenting it.  He has told you, o Mortal.  Human person, He has told you, and told you and told you.  Do justice.  Love Mercy.  Walk Humbly.  Yet we prize the self-centered and arrogant.  We cast aside the hurting as being too uncomfortable for us.  And we wait for a better time to talk about justice.  What does the Lord require?

I know what the Lord requires, but what we required after such an intense morning, is a last word before lunch that was a word of grace.  Grace Imathiu to be precise.  Grace is originally from Kenya, and yet has been a United Methodist Pastor in the States for many years.  There is a sense of wonder and humor about Grace that is infectious.  And more than that, it is transforming. In her way Grace was as insistent on doing justice as both Walter and Cynthia.  But she did it while making us laugh and telling us stories.  Stories, she says, can redefine, can marginalize, can reduce people to animals.  Or stories can include and redefine and transform.  But only when we tell the whole story.  Who's story is left out was the question she asked us.  As we tell our own stories, as we tell the stories of the nation, who is left out of the telling.  What stories, she asked us, have we forgotten in order to perpetuate the lie that fits our broken story and our broken history?  What stories of pain are ignored, what stories of suffering are overlooked, what stories would make us rethink who we are if they were told?  And how can we hear and then tell those stories?

There was much more to this day.  Walter was back with more after lunch.  The Rev Otis Moss III came too, to challenge us to make gumbo in our preaching, to bring from other traditions, other stories to enrich the broth and feed the people.  We had visitors from the Hill.  Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren came to encourage us to not give up on the call to justice, to not give up on the brokenhearted, and to not give up on them, those who want to represent the best of us, the highest aspirations of God's people  and to call us to continue to preach justice for all.

It was a long day, an intense but spirit-filled day.  And I am now sitting here in my room listening to the thunder roll across this city.  And I wonder if we are getting an Amen from above.  

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.  Amen and amen.