Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Light of Life

The sun is shining.  Brightly.  It makes it a little hard to sit here in the study at home and write this.  I have to squint a little bit.  It’s almost overwhelming, the brightness I mean.  Yet, I am reluctant to close the blinds on our big window.  Because the light seems rare these days.  End of winter, spring trying to shoulder its way onto the calendar, shoving through the cloud and the cold and the nagging suspicion that it’ll never come.  That we’re doomed in this current world of crisis and tragedy to a time of darkness.  

I saw an internet meme the other day that sums it up.  It was a photo of a bookstore, or a library, sign.  It read simply, “the post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels are now shelved with non-fiction.”  Sums it up, it seems.  Our deepest fears.  Our darkest suspicions.  That sun blazing in my study window is a ruse, a false promise of brighter times.  We live in darkness these days.  We’re afraid, suspicious, wary of neighbor and stranger both.  I was contacted this week by someone with a plea, with a concern on the heart.  How, the question went, will we ever trust those Muslims?  They seem out to get us, to destroy our way of life, to take over and tear down.  How can we live with this?  And of course the irony of the question – which many have, I acknowledge, stoked by the rhetoric of fear that surrounds us – is that it came in the week that a gunman entered a mosque in New Zealand and killed almost fifty worshipers in that space.  Who should be afraid of whom?

There is, of course, no simple solution, no easy accusation or even diagnosis of the problems that beset us in our world community these days.  Except to say that there are many who walk in darkness. 

Duh.  I’m sorry, you’re thinking, that’s the best you can do?  In the face of this international tragedy you fall back on banalities?  You trot out cliches that sound marginally pious but don’t say anything other than the obvious.  I mean, come on.  You can do better than that, can’t you?

Well, no, I don’t think I can do better than that.  Except perhaps to say something like there is darkness in the world.  And the darkness is really dark.  Therefore, it should be our strongest desire, our deepest passion to seek the light.  And not just any light.  But a light that gives life.

OK, I can hear your eyes rolling from here.  Take a look at the text for this week while I consider how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like something you’d read on a bumper sticker.

John 8:12-19  Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."  13 Then the Pharisees said to him, "You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid."  14 Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.  15 You judge by human standards; I judge no one.  16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.  17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid.  18 I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf."  19 Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also." 

I could have simply chosen verse 12 as the text for this second week of Lent.  That is where the “I Am” saying is found.  So, we could have read one verse and then all nodded our heads and gone home.  Yep, Jesus is the light.  Got it, thanks.

The purpose of the subsequent verses is to show us that this isn’t as easy as it first seems.  This isn’t a throw away that Jesus just tosses out one fine afternoon.  This isn’t just one more metaphor being presented to help us wrap our minds around the reality of Jesus.  Or rather it isn’t just that.  It is, instead, an offer.  It is an invitation to enter into a relationship that takes us to whole new reality, a different way of being alive in the world.

To say that there is resistance is a serious understatement.  Jesus’s hearers are stunned, shocked, offended by His words.  “Who do you think you are?”, they shout red-faced at him. “What gives you the right?”  And worst of all, “Who are you to tell us we don’t know God?  We are God experts, we are black belt in God, we have PhD’s in God! You, on the other hand are a nothing nobody from nowhere!!”
This was because Jesus poked them with a sharp stick, trying to get their attention, and they don’t like it.  They are trying to take Him to court, to follow the legal rules of witness and testimony.  He says, I’m not here for that.  “I judge no one,” isn’t an abdication of His role as the Lord of Lords, but an indication that He isn’t here for rules right now, but for relationships.  It’s not time for rules, it’s not time for courts, for trials and affidavits - if it was you’d be in even more trouble than you are right now.  

He gets a little heated, it seems to me.  Because they threw in His face the standard line from any who would oppose us, who would stand in our way, who would challenge our word and our faith: “Prove it!”  Arghh, I hate that line.  Whether I got it from my kids, or the pagan down the street, or the seeker in the pew, or the soul lost in the darkness of his own making, or of her circumstance.  Prove it.  And what makes this question so doggone frustrating is that I find it on my own lips, in my own heart from time to time.  “Prove it, Jesus.”  Prove you are who You say You are, prove it to me so that there is no shadow of doubt, no dark corner of suspicion in the worldly part of me, prove it so that I never waver in my allegiance, never stray from your path, never lose my grip on that strong hand folded around mine.  Prove it.  Please.

If you take out the verses at the beginning of Chapter 8 here in John (a story which many say is in the wrong place and messes up the order of things), and look back to the beginning of this long debate, you’ll discover that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles.  Like all the great festivals, this one is marked by ritual and ceremony, by tradition and celebration.  On the first night of the festival, four lamps, or large torches were brought out to the court of the women, one of the outer courts and lit up to chase away the darkness.  It was said that when these torches were lit there was no courtyard in Jerusalem that couldn’t see the light.  In the light of the these festival lamps, the leaders and the followers, the wise and the foolish, the saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor would dance.  It was the very Presence of God that brought them through the darkness of the exodus, so what else could you do but dance?  It was an expression of Joy, bubbling forth from the least and the greatest, made equal by the grace of that light.  

It was in that light that Jesus said “I Am the light of the world,” the source of true joy, the fullness of life.  You can’t prove it, you have to experience it.  You can’t prove it, you have to accept it.  If He did prove it for us, He would remove from us the opportunity to choose.  Or as my daughter Maddie used to show me, He holds out his hand and gives us the grace to accept the invitation to dance.  He gives us the opportunity, the joy of saying yes.  The only proof He allows for those who still walk in darkness is the dance of those who have said yes.  We are the proof, our lives lived out in joy and hope and sometimes terrifying desperation.

Whoever follows me, He says, will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.  A bold claim.  An impossible claim, it seems to me.  Given that the world is so full of darkness, given that there is darkness within us – the darkness of fear and doubt and brokenness.  It seems like no one can follow, no one does follow.  Unless He doesn’t really mean that nothing will ever go wrong for and by the ones who follow Him.  Unless He means that even when we stumble, even when we let the darkness get the better of us for a time, that we will never choose the darkness, we will never succumb to the darkness and let hate rule in our hearts.  Unless He means that in there, in the core of our being, the depths of our souls, the part we once surrendered to Him, dwells a light that makes us alive, and by that light we can live for Him even in the darkest moments.  And so prove, to ourselves at least, that He lives, the Light of the world lives.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Bread Words

I’m just back from the preaching class at Course of Study.  I’m filled up with words.  With words and the Word, to be precise.  Words are our medium most of the time, though we also hope for experience too.  But this Lent especially we are people of the Word and focused on words.  And we’ll look at the words of the Incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ.  And not just words from the Word, but the words from the Word about the Word!  Whew.  And then, we’re going to look at the Gospel of John to find these words from the Word about the Word.  

“The Gospel of John is a veritable symphony of incomprehension.”  That’s what Bishop William Willimon, said in the commentary series called Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 309.  About John.  That Gospel that stands apart, sounds different, feels different, is different.  That’s where we’ll go for our words.

So, we are launching a Lent of incomprehension.  And I, for one, couldn’t be more excited.  I know, it seems odd.  Isn’t my job to make sense of things?  Aren’t I a communicator, and shouldn’t I be marked down if folks come out of a worship or learning experience with a look of puzzlement on their faces?  Didn’t I fail at my task if confusion reigns?  

Well, I used to think so.  Still do, if I’m honest.  I want everyone to get it.  Get it?  I want a morning’s worth of ah-ha moments.  I want insight and understanding, I want clarity and decision, I want commitment and determination.  That’s what I want.  Certainly, I do.

So, to help get us there, I chose a Lenten series on the “I Am” sayings in the Gospel of John.  The veritable symphony of incomprehension, that gospel. You know, the “he didn’t get it” one.  The “she missed the point” narrative.  The “and the crowd threw up their hands in confusion and wandered off bewildered” story of Jesus.

I know that some of these sayings are favorite verses of many.  “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Gate.”  “I am the Bread of Life.”  But almost all of them come in the midst of some of the most confusing dialogue in the whole Bible.  It almost sounds as though Jesus doesn’t really want people to get it.  Like He is being deliberately obscure.  Like He wants to leave us with mouths agape and fingers scratching wrinkled brows, and eyes looking in vain to see if anyone else has a clue.

John 6:26-35   Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."  28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"  29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."  30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?  31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"  32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."  34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."  35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

See what I mean?  Before this He was offering water so that we would never be thirsty, now He is offering bread so that we would never be hungry.  No, He is bread.  Is bread.  Some argue this is a hint about communion.  He is telling the church to be that one day we will engage in a ritual that will use bread to remind us of Him.  Well, sure.  But there has to be more here than a future liturgical hint. 

Maybe what we are tripping over here is not the bread.  I know that seems to be the confusion.  Jesus says to the crowds who have hunted him down that they were there for the wrong reasons.  They were there to get something to eat.  They were there to fill their bellies, to see that trick with the few loaves of bread that fed five thousand.  But when Jesus points it out to them, they are surprisingly amenable to change.  “Don’t work for food that perishes,” He says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  Well, duh, they say to Him, that’s why we’re here.  What you’ve been handing out is different than what we can pick up at Mejier’s or even Fresh Market!  So, hand over that “special” stuff!

Wait, He said work for it.  OK, what’s the work we’ve got to do?  “Believe in the one whom God sent.”  It was Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who claimed that in her youth she could believe six impossible things before breakfast.  Is that the kind of workout that Jesus invites us to undertake?  Get those believing muscles a-workin’!

There’s the rub, it seems to me.  We don’t normally associate believing with work.  Believing is a mental exercise, an internal activity that might be difficult but not really strenuous.  Jesus is asking for an intellectual assent, right?  He’s asking us to wrap our minds around the knowledge of who he is.  He wants us to understand, and agree, to sign on the dotted line of faith.  Right?

Wrong.  I think that this is why we (and they, those first followers struggled with it too) are so confused by what Jesus has to say.  Jesus never asks for understanding.  He doesn’t come and say “figure me out!”  “I’m a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma and once you puzzle it out you’ve got it made!”  Like some holy Rubik’s cube, or those golf tee peg things at Cracker Barrel.  Figure it out and you win, faith becomes easy.  

Jesus isn’t some puzzle to solve, but a companion with whom we walk.  When Jesus invites us to believe in him, He isn’t talking about an intellectual exercise as much as an act of will.  He is asking us to put our lives in his hands.  To commit to living the way He lives, to dedicate our lives to the priorities that He holds, to becoming like Him, loving like Him.  That’s the work He invites us to enter.  This is the bread He invites us to consume.  

You are what you eat.  That’s the faith declaration that Jesus claims in this passage.  So, eat this bread, drink from this belief.  And what you will find is what you have longed for, what you have hungered for is already within you.  He is the Bread, He is the Word.  Bread is the staple of life, some argue.  It is the ubiquitous food that sustains and fills.  It represents what we need to survive.  It stands for the sign of our dependance, but also our ability to be nourished by what is provided.  Bread is an acknowledgment that we do indeed hunger but also that we know how to fill those hungers.  

And words are the means we have of accessing that bread.  Give us this bread always, we say.  Give us these words, the words said to us and the words we say to others.  The word we hear and the word we speak, and the Word we feast upon.  We’re all about words this Lenten season.  His Words.  The words from the Word about the Word.  Bread Words.


Saturday, February 23, 2019

Defying Gravity

Something has changed within me / Something is not the same / I'm through with playing by the rules / Of someone else's game / Too late for second-guessing / Too late to go back to sleep / It's time to trust my instincts / Close my eyes and leap!

It’s a heavy day today.  The weather is heavy, leaden, gray, promising a deluge later on, flood warnings abound. It weighs upon us.  The rodent predicted spring may be early as promised, but it seems a long time coming.  It’s a heavy day today.  A glance through local and national and even international news feels like a cement block settling onto our shoulders.  Border wars, tear gas and shooting, sports figures and actors and politicians detained and accused, harassment and hatred in our own deep end of the pool - heaviness pulls at us, dragging at every attempt to move forward.  Forward, a way forward? Or the inertia of gravity that pulls into stagnation, into division and fear, into a lack of trust and choosing of sides.  We are not immune to the effects of gravity.  In the church, in the world, in you and in me.  It is what it is.  Just learn to live with it, that’s the advice of some.  Get used to it.  You can’t fight it, you can’t change it, it is as fundamental to the human condition as gravity.  

It's time to try defying gravity / I think I'll try defying gravity / And you can't pull me down / I'm through accepting limits / 'Cause someone says they're so / Some things I cannot change / But 'til I try, I'll never know! / Too long I've been afraid of / Losing love I guess I've lost / Well, if that's love / It comes at much too high a cost! / I'd sooner buy defying gravity / Kiss me goodbye, I'm defying gravity / And you can't pull me down 

Our Showstoppers series is ending on shaky ground.  Shaky?  Well, there are witches.  Some will take offense at the very idea.  Some will recoil at the thought that we might find something of value, hear something of the gospel in the words of a witch.  

Wicked is a musical that I love.  I was captivated by it the first time I saw it years ago.  It is a retelling, a prequel to use the lingo, to the classic children’s story “The Wizard of Oz.”  And there are witches and wizards, talking animals and munchkins, yeah, ok.  But Wicked is about witches and wizards in the same way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about ornithology.  It’s really about good and evil and how it is sometime hard to tell one from the other, or about how good can sometimes feel like evil, or help can often harm, and truth can sound like a lie and lies become a new truth.  All of which sounds an awful lot like something Jesus said.

Luke 6:27-38  "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.  32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

“I say to you that listen.”  Are these words we really want to hear, to really listen to and perhaps change our lives around?  Well, no, let’s be honest.  We live in a world that nurses grudges, that licks wounds, that lives to get even.  Talk about your swimming against the tide.  Talk about defying gravity.  These words of Jesus here in the Gospel of Luke sound like a note out of tune in the symphony of our lives.  Love your enemies?  Come on!  

Take a look though, take a listen.  Listen to this rethinking of how we live in community.  “Love your enemies” he says.  But how do we do that? We whine and complain and run off with a million excuses, a million justifications as to why that not only won’t work but it isn’t even humanly possible.  Listen Jesus, what you are asking is not going to work in the world in which we live.  Whether we are talking about international enemies, where an expression of love for those enemies will get us labeled a traitor to our nation or soft on  terrorism, or bleeding hearts or who knows what else; or talking about personal enemies who just make our lives the living hell that it can be from time to time until we develop enough backbone to get rid of them.  Surely you aren’t asking us to just put up with bad treatment because Christians are supposed to be the welcome mat for the world, allowing anyone and everyone to wipe their feet on us!

Slow down, He would say, just listen for a moment, please?  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  But how in the world... Shh, listen.  Bless those who curse you.  Are you kidding me, those no good .... Quiet!  Listen.  Pray for those who abuse you.  OK, now you’ve gone too far, Jesus.  That just isn’t right, to put up with abuse is simply wrong, just wrong.

Listen, please just listen.  Watch what he does here.  On one level he is repeating the same charge four times. Love your enemies.  Love those who hate you.  Love those who curse you. Love those who abuse you.  Repetition to make the point.  But on another level he is shifting the call.  Love, do good, bless, pray for.  Do you see, do you hear?  Jesus doesn’t tell us to just take it.  He doesn’t tell us to just be the door mat of anyone and everyone.  What he tells us is don’t become them.  Don’t harbor the kind of hate that allows abuse and cursing to happen.  Turn it around.  Turn it over.  But notice the distance, “do good” means encounter, get close enough to impact a life somehow.  “Bless” is at arms length.  When curses are being hurled, you might need to step back.  Step back and gather yourself so that you can hurl blessings in return.  But step back, blessings aren’t in your face, they are laid at your feet.  They are handed out at a bit of distance.  And then “pray,” when the abuser is at work, then get away, get far away, run to safety.  But don’t carry the hate with you, run from it too.  Instead from your safe place you pray, pray for God’s healing and God’s love to transform the abuser.  Leave behind the inclination to hurt back, as you have been hurt.  It doesn’t help in the healing.  It doesn’t make right what has been a horrible wrong.  Let it go, and love.  Love from a distance.  Or better yet, pray, pray that God’s love can do what your love is incapable of at the moment.  Pray that God steps in and loves your enemies through you.  Suddenly gravity doesn’t seem insurmountable. Still scary, but not insurmountable.

“Too long I’ve been afraid of losing love I guess I lost.”  Do we lose something in the process.  Well, yeah, according to the world we lose something.  According to a revenge culture we lose something.  That’s why Jesus goes on to talk about losing.  If you always want to be even, what good is that?  If you always want pay back what good is that?  If you always get love in return for your love, it is really love?  The love we lose in the process of defying gravity, becomes the love that sustains us as we fly.  It becomes the love that transforms, the love that surrenders.  The love that pours out regardless of the return.  The love that is like God.  

Why be kind?  For the good it does?  No.  Though it does do good, powerful good.  For the feeling it gives us?  No.  Though those feelings are wonderful by-products of doing kindness.  Why do acts of kindness?  Because that’s what God does.  And the reward we get is that we can participate in that love.  We can love like God loves.  That’s why we do it.  Because God does.  And it starts with listening.  Deeply enough to hear.  Jesus speaks to those who listen.  

Something has changed within me, within us.  Something is not the same.  See, just knowing this, just hearing this and everything changes.  We can no longer ignore  the way the world is.  It’s time to try defying gravity. To try it is His way.  To love like He loves.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

You Will Be Found

Have you ever felt like nobody was there? / Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere? / Have you ever felt like you could disappear? / Like you could fall, and no one would hear?

Dear Evan Hansen is a Tony award winning musical that burst onto Broadway in 2016 to critical acclaim.  Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters of all the music from The Greatest Showman, it is a deceptively simple story about a young man trying to find his way in a world that barely seems to acknowledge his existence let alone help him find a way to be accepted and loved.  

It is not my intention to provide a review or even synopsis of this amazing show.  Instead I want to listen in on one showstopping song in the midst of the musical.  “You Will Be Found” is a declaration of hope, a belief in the goodness of humanity, even in the face of despair and isolation.  It is a cry for a faith that is often just out of the grasp of many in a selfish and self-centered world.

Well, let that lonely feeling wash away / Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay / ‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand / You can reach, reach out your hand // And oh, someone will coming running / And I know, they’ll take you home // Even when the dark comes crashing through / When you need a friend to carry you / And when you’re broken on the ground / You will be found 

What I’m asking is whether we dare hear the gospel in this song.  Is the world described in “You Will Be Found” not the world that surrounds us out there, but just might be the kingdom we are called to imagine into reality?  Is it a naive view of a kinder, gentler world no one believes in, or is it a radical re-prioritizing of the intention of our Creator God as presented by the Word made flesh, Jesus our Christ?

Luke 6:17-26 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Scholars tell us that both Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are most likely compilations of sayings of Jesus accumulated over a larger part of his teaching ministry rather than one sermon per se.  It is possible that at various times Jesus stood or sat to teach and put together these various thoughts in one larger teaching moment.  It was a technique the rabbis called “stringing pearls.”

The problem is that some of these pearls are hard to hear.  “Blessed are you when people hate you..”  Really?  Is that something we should aspire to?  Something we should work toward?  “Rejoice in that day (that hating day) and leap for joy...”  I don’t know that this is something I really want to claim in my faith.  I know, I’ve been told as a pastor that if people aren’t upset by what I am doing, then I’m not doing enough.  In which case, I’ve done plenty in my day.

But I’m not sure that’s what he was getting at here.  It isn’t that we set out to upset people, that we do whatever it takes to get us hated.  If that were the case, then those Westboro Baptist folks are on the right track.  And there is no way in God’s heaven that that makes sense.

“Blessed are you who are poor”, “blessed are you who are hungry”.  Are we supposed to just let the poor and the hungry live in their blessedness because some day there will be a change in their circumstances?  Or are we called to be a partner in that change?  Are we the promise that Christ gives to those in difficult circumstances?  And what does it mean to promise the Kingdom of God?  Is it, as so many believe, a “someday” kind of promise.  You’ll get your reward one day, when you die, or when Jesus comes back, whichever comes first.  Or is there something else going on here?  If so, what would that be?  Is it something beyond the facile “it will all work out in the end” kind of assurances?  

And why the “woes”?  Why can’t we just celebrate the blesseds and skip the woes?  Matthew takes them out.  Matthew’s Jesus climbs a hill and looks down upon us, calling us to a higher spiritual realm, to aspire to something more, something bigger.  But Luke’s Jesus climbs down and walks among us.  He gets in our faces, He touches us, heals us, drives out the demons from within us.  And most important of all He offers us nothing less than Himself.  

So what do these verses offer those in desperate situations?  Hope?  Well, yes, there is hope.  There is a promise of reversal.  There is resolution for even the most complex, the most broken of situations.  And we who stand in faith must never lose our hold on that hope.  It is what drives us to keep working, to keep giving, to keep loving, even when we don’t see a solution on the horizon.

But these verses tell us that this hope comes packaged in a relationship.  “Yours is the kingdom of God.”  Even the most desperate of people are still worthy of love, of welcome, of hospitality, There is room at our table, room in our inn, room in our circle even for the hurting, even for the weeping.

That is why when folks hurt and withdraw from community the healing takes so much longer.  That is why seclusion is actually detrimental to hope.  The kingdom that is on offer is a community, a relationship of healing and hope.  That relationship is, of course, first and foremost with Jesus the Christ, the author of hope, the source of healing.  But it is lived in the here and now, in the everyday, with the human community we call the church.  A place of acceptance and inclusion.  At least we hope, at least we strive to be that community, that reflection of the kingdom.  

Did you notice that some verses are future tense: you will be filled, you will laugh.  But some are present: yours is the kingdom.  We can be right now the place of filling and the place of healing, or learning to laugh again.  We can’t fix the problems with a snap of the finger, but we can be a part of the solution.  If we hang in there together.  If we remember we who have been found are now in the business of finding.  Someone will come running, and that’s us.  We’re the runners, we’re the finders.  Why, because we have been found, we have been run to, and we’ll never let ourselves forget that.  

So let the sun come streaming in / 'Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again / If you only look around / You will be found (You will be found) // Out of the shadows / The morning is breaking / And all is new, all is new / It's filling up the empty / And suddenly I see that / All is new, all is new / You are not alone / You are not alone / You are not alone / You are not alone // Even when the dark comes crashin' through / When you need someone to carry you / When you’re broken on the ground / You will be found! 


Saturday, February 9, 2019

From Now On

I saw the sun begin to dim / And felt that winter wind / Blow cold / A man learns who is there for him / When the glitter fades and the walls won't hold / 'Cause from then, rubble / what remains / Can only be what's true / If all was lost / Is more I gain / 'Cause it led me back / To you
(From Now On, finale of The Greatest Showman)

It’s back.  That winter thing.  Cold and ice, maybe even some snow later.  Who knows?  But only for a few days.  Then it will be warm again.  And wet, and rainy.  Spring and winter do-si-do this month.  Take your partners and dance.  Take your chances.  Shed that coat and freeze your fingers to numbness.  Wear the wool sweater and feel the sweat run down your back.  The cats stare out the back door at the sunshine, thinking they could go out and bask in the warmth, only to blame you when they scurry back in bowed against the frigid temperature. Something just isn’t right they mutter as they huddle over the heating vent.  Just isn’t right.

The not rightness seems pervasive.  Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn.  Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I’m just out of sync with the world these days.  Or maybe the tilt of the planet is more out of skew than ever.  Maybe the not rightness seeps into everything we do or think or remember, and our vision is clouded by the weight of our brokenness.  Late at night we lie awake remembering every mistake, misjudgment, wrong decision we’ve ever made.  And we can’t help but feel like we’re face down in a boat full of fish, consumed with our sinfulness, wanting to send away the One who brought us to our knees.

Luke 5:1-11  Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,  2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."  5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."  6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"  9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."  11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. 

In the conversation we learn that it hadn’t been a good night for Simon.  Fishing was done at night in those days.  The fishermen would spend the night in the shallows tossing their nets and pulling in the catch.  Then as dawn broke, they would bring the fish to shore and sell them at the market.  Because of a lack of facilities for preserving fish, this was a daily event.  Except this day.

This day, for Simon, was a hungry day.  Nothing to sell, nothing to take home for his family.  Nothing.  It might have been that he was still sitting in his boat because he didn’t want to go home and tell them that he had nothing.  It might have been that he was sitting there feeling empty, feeling worthless, feeling shallow.  Until that Man came and asked him to go out into the deep.

Luke says that Jesus was teaching and everyone kept pressing closer and closer.  The crowd grew and pressed in to hear.  So, Jesus looks around for options, and sees Simon sitting there in his boat with failure on his hands.  So, Jesus steps in and asks if he would mind rowing out a little way so that He could teach without risking getting wet.  An amazing thing, don’t you think?  A little invitation, a small inconvenience and before you know it, Simon was in over his head.  Did Jesus show up that day looking for followers?  Or was that a bonus?  The catch of the day?  

And what was the lesson that day?  I find it interesting that Luke doesn’t say a word about what Jesus taught.  In Luke’s haste to get to Simon Peter’s story, we skip over Jesus’ words.  Typical, I suppose.  We sometimes miss what is right in front of our faces, because we want to get to something more personal.  We skim over the article to see if our name is there, we glance through the program to find someone familiar, we scan the crowd to find a certain face, and in so doing we miss everything and everyone else.  Jesus may have been talking about paying attention.  It was a common theme in his teaching elsewhere, no reason to think it would have been absent here.  “Consider the lilies,” he would say, “look there, wheat and weeds growing together,” that road, this seed, those fields – Jesus was always asking us to pay attention to what was around us.  Like a preschool primer, Jesus said “Look and See.”

Yet it was never just the appearance of things that interested Jesus.  He was really saying look deeper.  Which is what he said to Simon when the teaching was over.  “Let’s go deep.”  That’s where the drama is, isn’t it?  Out in the deep water.  Out where stuff matters.  We can paddle around in the shallows if we want, it’s safer there, easier there.  Or we can, at His command, His invitation, go deeper.  Simon is reluctant at first.  Been there, done that, didn’t work, won’t work.  I know fishing, Teacher, forgive me but stick to your talking, let me do the fishing.  We tried that already.  And got nothing.  A whole lot of nothing.

We’re reluctant.  Kinda busy over here.  Doing my thing, minding my own business, keeping my head down.  Frankly it’s the best way these days.  Head out to the deep water and you’re likely to drown in the rhetoric of violence and hatred.  Go under the flood of us and them and making our side great again.  No, thank you, the shallows will suit me just fine.  Except they don’t.  Not really.  They don’t satisfy the depths of the soul where the hurting is.  “If you say so,” Simon mumbles.  Maybe he just remembered how this Teacher just strode into Simon’s own house like He already was invited there and healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  Maybe Simon figured he owed this Man the benefit of the doubt.  

So, out they go.  Into the deep.  Drop the net and then ... what?  A miracle?  A coincidence?  A landlubber who got lucky?  A perceptive eye who saw a school a fish at just the right moment?  Who knows.  It was a lottery win, a jackpot in the wildest dreams category.  Two boatloads sinking under the weight of all the slippery, scaley, gasping dead-eyed fish.  Yet something happened in Simon.  Luke gives us a hint of that something - the only time he calls him anything other than Simon is in this moment - this realization moment.  Here’s where Peter is born, the Peter who followed, the Peter who tried, the Peter who failed again and again, but kept following.  That Peter appears right now and he collapsed in fear and shame and full awareness of his inadequacies and emptiness.  Go away from Lord - another change.  From Master - teacher - rabbi - to Lord.  Go away Lord, I am a sinful man.  

Jesus smiles at the fisherman lying among the fish.  And bends down to gently say, “don’t be afraid.”  Wait.  What?  Don’t be afraid?  Not yeah, you are a slimy, fishy sinner, you need to take care of that before we can go any further.  Not, here’s a hot coal to the lips to make you clean again.  Just “don’t be afraid.”  As if Simon Peter’s sin isn’t a handicap to the task before him.  As if sin isn’t a barrier to Jesus.  Isn’t a hindrance to Him.  

Then He says the next amazing thing.  “From now on...”  That’s what He says.  From now on.  As if this moment is a new start, a launching pad, a reorienting.  This moment is a Genesis moment, something is being created here, by the Word made flesh.  From now on.

From now on! / These eyes will not be blinded by the lights! / From now on! / What's waited till tomorrow starts tonight! / It starts tonight! / Let this promise in me start / Like an anthem in my heart / From now on! / From now on! / From now on! // And we will come back home / And we will come back home / Home again! 

From now on you’ll be catching people.  That’s what He said to Simon becoming Peter.  That’s what He says to us.  From now on you’ll be taking them alive.  That’s what the word means.  Mostly.  Taking them alive, capturing them.  It usually refers to capturing of the enemy to make them slaves.  Not the best image, frankly.  Except one linguist says that it could also mean something else.  It could mean revive them.  Make them alive.  From now all you’ll be giving life, you’ll be welcoming them home.  From now on.  And as you find, so you’ll be found.  And we will come back home, home again.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

"This is Me" Saith the Lord

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down / I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out / I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I'm meant to be, this is me / Look out 'cause here I come / And I'm marching on to the beat I drum / I'm not scared to be seen / I make no apologies, this is me

We’re week three into our Showstoppers series here at Southport.  And turning to one of my all time favorite new show stopping tunes.  Elsewhere I wrote that “This is Me”is an anthem of identity and worth and determination.  It is about the outcast becoming the center of attention.  It is a recognition that the place the world gives to us is not always the place Jesus gives to us.  And He shows that in His very first encounter with the opposition, with those who don’t want Him to be who He came to be, but they want Him to be who they want him to be.  Jesus always issues an invitation – follow me.  Join me, be a part of what I’m doing, what I’m bringing.  But He is going to do it His way, that’s what the wrestling in the desert was all about.  He chose His path.  We’re invited to come along, but we’re to walk His way.  

OK, full disclosure, I’m not at the top of my game this afternoon.  I just spent the day teaching for Course of Study.  Plus I woke up (actually went to bed) with the beginnings of the cold that has been running around our office.  So, I’m taking the easy way out and rerunning a commentary on this passage that I have done before.  It may sound familiar to some of you who have been reading for a while.  But that’s OK, it is still relevant.  

All I ask is that as you read you hear the great singer and actress Keala Settle sing This is Me from the Greatest Showman while you read.  And see if some of these words (like those printed above) sound faintly like what Jesus might have been singing as He passed through a murderous crowd and went on His way.

Luke 4:21-30  21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Everything was going so well.  Jesus makes his proclamation, preaches his nine word sermon and the applause rains down.  I know, that isn’t the way you remember the story.  Wasn’t he rejected, didn’t they say he was just a hometown boy getting too big for his britches?  Well, not exactly.  Not at first.  Look again.  “All spoke well of him.”  They thought, wow!  A hometown boy made good.  He’s one of us!  He’s ours.  Aren’t we special?  Aren’t we cool?  That little phrase at the end of verse 22 wasn’t disparaging, it was pride.  He’s like us.

If Jesus has stopped there, it would have been a glorious homecoming.  They would have slapped him on the back and invited him to dinner and talked about the good old days when he was a boy and things were so much better back in the Nazareth that used to be once upon a time.  Jesus would have been a minor celebrity and they’d all wave to him in the Walgreen’s parking lot, and want to sit by him in the bleachers at the high school basketball games.  He could have done well back there in the little town.  

But he didn’t stop talking.  He had a bigger vision than one small town in the hill country of Galilee.  So he says, I know you want me to settle down here, because here is where all the people that matter are.  I know you don’t understand why anyone would want to leave Nazareth and go on to other towns and other countries.  But you don’t need me here.  You won’t hear me here.

Wait, he said that?  “No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”  Different translations have us remember those words in different ways.  But what does it mean?  Why did he say it?  Because he knew what was underneath their approval.  And he knew they didn’t want to hear what he came to say.  He came to say they were important - that much they heard.  God is going to get the kingdom going right here, in Nazareth.  That’ll show the folks down the road, in the next county, in the next country.  God’s kicking things off right here!  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.  Yee haw.  He came to say that they were important.  But that they weren’t the only important ones in the world.  He came to say that God thinks even the stranger, even the foreigner, even the enemy is important.  Important enough to save.  Important enough to love.

This has been God’s plan from the beginning, Jesus says.  You remember Elijah?  You remember that story of the widow?  God thought she was important, saved her, blessed her, loved her.  She wasn’t one of us.  You remember Elisha?  You remember that guy, that foreign general guy, with the skin problem?  That guy was an enemy, a conqueror of people like you.  God healed him.  God blessed him.  God loved him.  Get this, he was Syrian.

Syrian?  Wait a minute here Jesus.  A refugee from Syria?  He might be wanting to hurt us.  He might be hating us.  He might tell us he’s running for his life, but maybe it is just a plot.  To catch us with our guard down.  Maybe he isn’t really sick.  Maybe they aren’t really refugees.  Maybe they haven’t lived their whole lives in fear of their lives, surrounded by war and killing and living in an unjust system that doesn’t value them as human beings but rather sees them as pawns in a terrible game of power.  Maybe we should protect ourselves first, think of ourselves first.

How dare you, Jesus, tell us to love even those who are different from us.  Heck, we struggle to love the others in our pew, don’t go asking us to love across the boundaries that are there to keep us safe.  No wonder they got angry.  No wonder they turned into a mob.  You can’t blame them really.  Jesus was inconveniencing them something awful.  Asking them to make accommodations, to change ingrained habits, to think differently about who and what a neighbor really is.  That’s crazy talk.  So, they barked and barked and barked, drove him out of town, wanted to toss him off a cliff.  But he just left.  He had places to go, a Word to proclaim, a world to save.  He went on His way.

Perhaps the saddest verse in the whole Bible.  Evidence that God doesn’t force us to change, to grow, to love like He loves.  Doesn’t demand that we become something more, something riskier, something with the potential to change the world for the better.  To be more like it was supposed to be in the beginning.  When God created the heavens and the earth and said it was good!  It was good.  We don’t have to be a part of the making good.  But Jesus isn’t hanging around.  He says follow me.  And goes on His way.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Come Alive

It’s another January day out there.  Cold, but not as frigid as yesterday, though the cold is returning we’re told.  Sun peeks out now and then, but not enough to chase the blues away.  

You stumble through your days / Got your head hung low / Your skies' a shade of grey / Like a zombie in a maze / You're asleep inside / But you can shake awake / 'Cause you're just a dead man walking / Thinking that's your only option / But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day / Sun is up and the color's blinding / Take the world and redefine it / Leave behind your narrow mind / You'll never be the same

Some argue that a Christian should never be blue.  A true follower of Jesus should never be down, depressed, we hear.  That’s why we often hide it when we are struggling.  There is a switch we can flip.  Knowledge we can claim that can turn everything around.  The problem is there is.  Maybe not a switch to throw, maybe not anything quite so easy.  But there is new life to be had.  There is a fresh start, a new way of living in the world, a way of being.  Of loving and being loved.  Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, and yet it still slips through our fingers with surprising speed.  What will it take for us to be able to throw that switch, to be able to come alive?

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."

There is an invitation here.  It seems so obvious.  I know that this is really about Jesus.  The season of Epiphany is all about Jesus, not about us.  At best we get to stand in the glow of the light that comes.  But it is about Him.  Look at His own words as he stands to read the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.”  Did you hear it?  “He has anointed Me ...”  “He has sent Me ...”  This isn’t about us, this is about Him.  

And yet, everything about Him is also about us.  Or rather, everything about Him is an invitation to us.  We bear His name, we call ourselves “Christian” which literally means “little Christs.”  We are trying to be like Him.  And though we fail more often than we succeed, we continue to try.  We continue to step out.  We continue to pore over His words to find the hidden meanings and insights into how to live the life He lived.  Continue to seek to come alive.

Come alive, come alive / Go and light your light / Let it burn so bright / Reaching up / To the sky / And it's open wide / You're electrified / When the world becomes a fantasy / And you're more than you could ever be / 'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can't go back again / To the world that you were living in / 'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!

There are those who claim that Jesus was just wrong when He preached this first and shortest sermon.  “Today” He said.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Fulfilled?  How He even assume that?  How could He believe that freedom has been achieved, that vision has returned, that the poor are lifted up?  It hadn’t happened then, and it hasn’t happened yet to this very day.  He must have been wrong.  Right?

But was He?  What did He announce?  He announced that the Spirit had anointed Him to preach.  To proclaim.  And preach He did.  Proclaim He did.  He preached a world that we couldn’t see yet.  And then called us to see it too.   'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can't go back again / To the world that you were living in / 'Cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!  He asked us to come alive, to live in a new world.  A world beyond our vision. A world based on our devotion to Him, our obedience to Him.  The Kingdom.  We are called to dream the Kingdom of God into being each and every day.  To move forward as if we saw something no one else sees.  At least those who aren’t yet alive, who haven’t yet given themselves to a declaration of jubilee.  Of freedom and redemption.  Of love and transformation.  Of value, immense and deep value.

We struggle to see our value.  We feel worthless more often than not.  Empty, a zombie in a maze, a dead one walking.  Yet we are called to know, to hear and proclaim our value, our worth.  Not just ours, but any and all who claim this Christ.  Any who shake awake enough to hear His words, His proclamation.  

Any and all.  That’s what got Him in trouble.  But that’s next week’s part of the story.  We’ll come back to that.  For now we’ll simply acknowledge that those who are alive will always look like freaks to those who are dead.  Who are not yet alive.  

But that’s the invitation.  The call to come alive in Christ.  The invitation is to dream with our eyes wide open.  To believe in something we don’t always see, love and justice, forgiveness and mercy.  Because He saw it, He proclaimed it, He lived it every day, with every breath.  And we want to stand with Him.  He asked us to stand with Him. He said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In your hearing.  Meaning us.  In our hearing.  It was an invitation, a call to join Him in the mission to proclaim, to make disciples, to be the church.  In your hearing, He said.  Not just the vibration of your eardrums, but in the secret corners of your heart where you live and define yourself.  Hear it there.  Hear it in the fabric of your soul, in the strings of your heart.  In your dreaming with eyes wide open.  Come alive, He says to us.  And join Me in the proclamation.

Yet it seems impossible.  Beyond us.  Our eyes don’t see as clearly as His do.  Our hearts can’t stand the rejection, the despair like His did.  We give up, we blink away the dream we can’t hold on to on our own.  We have trouble standing against the tide of those who think differently.  Who want to build walls and not bridges, who want to call names and point fingers and not see a common humanity in the ones called least of these, who say security is our highest goal and not community.  It’s beyond us to hold on to this dream, this proclamation, this kingdom.  

The truth is it is hard, too hard for us.  Beyond our power.  Out of our reach.  Which is why we need help.  Like He did.  Wait, what?  He had help?  Luke says He did.  Did you notice?  At the beginning of the text.  Right there it says He had help.  He relied on a power that came from above.  “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  Filled with the power of the Spirit.

On our own power we can’t hope to come alive.  We can’t hope to dream the kingdom dream.  We need the power of the Spirit to stand.  And once we open ourselves to that power, then we can’t go back.  Come alive.  


Saturday, January 19, 2019


Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've waited for (woah) / Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor (woah) / And buried in your bones there's an ache that you can't ignore / Taking your breath, stealing your mind / And all that was real is left behind

Don't fight it, it's coming for you, running at ya / It's only this moment, don't care what comes after / Your fever dream, can't you see it getting closer /Just surrender 'cause you feel the feeling taking over / It's fire, it's freedom, it's flooding open / It's a preacher in the pulpit and you'll find devotion / There's something breaking at the brick of every wall, it's holding / All that you know / So tell me do you wanna go?

Well, do ya?  Of course we do. With an intro like that, who could say no?  Who could turn away?  Not me.  Buried in your bones there’s an ache you can’t ignore.   For what?  What are we longing for these days?  What draws us, what excites us?  What drives us to reach for, hope for more?  Not more stuff, surely.  But more out of life.  More life!  

We live in an excitement seeking world.  And we have to engage in increasingly dangerous and strenuous activities to keep the adrenaline flowing.  Extreme sports, extreme anything really.  That’s what we want, the thrill a minute, edge of the seat kind of excitement that keeps us feeling alive.  And why not?  Why not grab hold of life with both hands?  Why not drink deep of the waters of life?  Why not run with the wind of joy and celebration?  Why not rejoice at the good things that surround us daily?  Why not love with abandon?  Why not?

I’ll tell you why not.  Because it isn’t real.  Right?  There is so much broken in the world.  There is so much that drags us down, so much that weighs on us. Because life is hard, because no one is on your side.  Because the enemy is at the border, ready to swoop in and steal our livelihood, if not our very lives.  Right?  Because there is too much to fear.  That’s why not.  That’s why we ignore the ache in our bones for something more, something real. Because we don’t know what’s real.  Which news is fake, which fear-mongering is more reflective of the reality in which we live.  We believe who we choose to believe, even when they are proved to be wrong.  It’s a harsh world full of disappointment and betrayal, better to protect yourself, guard your heart so you don’t get hurt.  So that when something goes wrong you can say, I didn’t expect anything less.  It just proves my point that the world is a terrible place.

Except.  It's everything you ever want / It's everything you ever need / And it's here right in front of you / This is where you wanna be (this is where you wanna be) Except, there is more.  There must be more.  There must be something of life left to embrace.  Something that we were created for.  Something that fills us like nothing else.  That gives us joy and a reason to celebrate.  Something like a party.  Or a wedding.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."  4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."  5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 

Wow!  He revealed His glory. Jesus is a showstopper.  That’s my thesis this worship series.  I called it “Showstoppers” and am using some of my favorite musical numbers to help us understand Jesus the showstopper.  A showstopper is a song that is so powerful it steps outside of the narrative of the show and lets us just dwell in the glory of the lyrics and the music.  I watched the movie “The Greatest Showman” not too long ago and I was struck by the power of many of the songs.  And then when I laid them alongside these stories of Jesus, I was struck by the overlapping themes. 

Jesus launches His whole ministry at a wedding.  A blow out party of the year.  That’s what weddings were in those days.  We thought we invented the lavish wedding to end all weddings.  But no, in Jesus’s day weddings lasted a week.  The whole community was invited, the spread was endless, the celebration lasted around the clock (which, I know, hadn’t even been invented yet). In chapter one of John’s Gospel we have a poetic/theological intro, a quick dispensing of John the Baptist, and then the calling of the first of Jesus disciples.  Now, we’re underway.  At a wedding.  At a week long celebration of life and love, of hope and possibility, of a new beginning, but also the riskiness of living.  Things go wrong at weddings.  We all know that.  It’s often what we talk about afterwards.  There are plenty of YouTube videos of wedding disasters, go look them up. 

So, disaster struck at this one too.  Mary noticed it.  It’s a mom thing.  They pay attention.  They band together to resolve the problem.  Mary knew how to fix this one.  She went to Jesus.  “They’ve run out of wine.”  She has a solution to this wedding disaster, this breach in the firm communal rules of hospitality.  She turns to Jesus.

Now Jesus’s response seems a bit ... harsh. Woman, He says.  Not “aw mom, I’m in disguise, lying low.  It’s not time yet.”  Woman.  What is that to do with me or with you?  It’s not my hour.  Harsh.  In the midst of the party, Jesus is prickly, snapping at His mom, shirking His responsibilities - or at least opportunities.  I can’t explain it away.  Can’t find a loophole to make Him not look so rude.  It’s just there.  Another sign that we can love Him, even when we don’t or can’t understand Him.  

In John’s Gospel, everything has layers of meaning.  It’s not my hour is something that Jesus says frequently.  Again and again He reminds those around Him that it wasn’t His hour.  “His hour” has a specific reference for John.  His hour is the cross.  It is death and it is glory.  In a way we’ll never understand, but live in awe of.  

What it doesn’t mean is that He is opting out of the party.  And His mom knew that.  She passes the word to the servants and they leap to fix the unfixable at His word.  He has them fill six stone jars with water.  And makes 180 gallons of the best wine anyone has ever tasted.  And little bit of glory slips out.  Everyone is amazed, even those who don’t know why, but they grab a glass and toast the groom who had been trying to hide from embarrassment.  And the party goes on.

And His disciples believed in Him.  Wait, what?  His disciples believed in Him?  What, they’d just been along for the ride up to now?  They were kinda “well, I’ll go, but I’m not so sure about this guy!”  What did they believe, John, why don’t you get specific?  They believed Jesus had a future in catering?   They believed that they’d never go thirsty again?  What did they believe?  Who knows?  But they believed.

We’re in John’s Gospel remember.  Everything has layers.  Everything has deeper meanings.  Believe in John’s Gospel means something other than what we usually think.  It’s not an intellectual assent.  It’s not a logical theorem argued convincingly.  When John says they believed in Him what he means is that they were ready to put their lives in His hands.  They were ready to place all their bets on Him.  To affix their futures to His.  To go all out for Him.  Because He was everything they ever want, He was everything they ever need, and He was right there in front of them, this - that’s what they knew with every fibre in their being - this is where they wanna be.  With Him. 


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Snow Day

It’s a messy day today.  The snow is falling fast and hard and seemingly endlessly.  Sure it’s pretty, but also treacherous, and who knows whether it will stop in time for folks to decide to come to worship on Sunday.  Sometimes I think Saturday snows are testing the faith of the church.  

And it is snowing in Kansas City, where our Colts are planning to continue their improbable season by beating what many consider the best team in the NFL.  Can they do it again?  Arrowhead Stadium is an open air field, so they’ll be fighting the elements as well as the opponents.  A messy day.  Go Colts anyway.  Go through the messy to victory.

Which is sometimes the best we can do.  Go through the messy.  To victory, which sometimes is merely survival.  Sometimes victory is being able to continue on another day.  To not run screaming into the darkness.  Just holding on and hoping.  

The other messiness of today is that I’m not preaching tomorrow.  There was a time that I hated that, I lived to preach and it was something of an agony to have to stand aside to let someone else proclaim the Word.  Now I know better.  I know that sometimes I need to be quiet too.  Need to listen and not just always speak.  Some times there aren’t any words to say, and I need to acknowledge that.  Need to allow the messy world in which we live speak.  Or at least to listen for other voices from time to time. 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." ... Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,  22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 

This is the First Sunday after Epiphany, which means that the story is about the baptism of Jesus.  It is the second of the three Epiphanies that border this liturgical season.  We begin on Epiphany with the Wise men who saw the star, they were given an epiphany, a revelation about who this child really was.  Not the son of a poor girl and her husband who couldn’t find a room in the inn, but the savior of the world.  

The first Sunday of the season and the last Sunday after Epiphany contain two revelations that also identify Jesus as God’s Son.  We begin with the baptism and then we end with the transfiguration, that misty mountain top experience.

What is interesting about Luke’s depiction of the event is that the baptism hardly figures in at all.  The verses we skip serve to usher John the Baptist off the stage in favor of Jesus who now begins his ministry.  But after John’s bluster, the next thing we know is that the baptism had already taken place.  We missed it.  Ain’t that always the way?  We come for the show and by the time we got our seats, it had already happened.  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized...”  Darn it!  

You’d think that if Luke had a clue about the centuries of struggle the church has had about the detail of baptism, he might have spent a little more time with it.  We don’t know if Jesus was immersed or sprinkled.  We don’t know which liturgy John prefers, or if the vows that Jesus made were the same as the ones we make or not.  We don’t know if John was properly credentialed or if Jesus followed the rules.  We don’t know who signed the certificate.  We need to know these things, don’t we?  

Luke doesn’t seem to think so.  “Jesus had also been baptized...”  That’s the sum total of the description here.  If Luke is saying that the methodology isn’t what is important, then what is?  Why is Jesus even there in the first place?  That’s the question that has puzzled biblical scholars since the beginnings of the church.  John was preaching a baptism of repentance.  But we know that Jesus was without sin.  So, why would He need to be there?  What’s going on here?

The other interesting thing is that the next verses in Luke’s third chapter are the genealogy of Jesus.   Since the Gospel writers never do anything for the heck of it, we have to ask why is the list of Jesus’ earthly family tree following the story of His being claimed by his heavenly father?  

Here is the leap I’m asking you to make with me this weekend: Jesus went to John to be baptized because He was entering into this messy world that we live in.  All of us are born into a world not of our making.  A world we can barely understand at the best of times, a world we cannot explain at the worst of times.  A world that needs repentance, which is a corporate need as much as an individual one.  Jesus strode into the river to be buried up to the neck in the sin of the world, and then to rise to the Spirit.  He didn’t approve of the brokenness of this world, but He embraced it, He made it his, and He carried it with Him, like a chip on the shoulder, like a pack on His back, He carried it all the way to the cross.

And what did He say, when He embraced all that is wrong in this life, all that is less than divine, less than holy?  What words did He use to give meaning and understanding and explanation?  He didn’t say a thing.  Like us He was silent.  Did He want to speak?  Or was the weight of the burden He accepted so heavy that even He was struck dumb.  Like us, He was silent.  So that He would know what we experience when we have no words to say in the face of the messiness of our own lives.

There were words spoken in that moment, though.  Words that echo in the silence of our moments even to this day.  They weren’t His words or ours or any human.  They were God’s Words and they said simply: “I love you.”  Words of affirmation, not for deeds done or not done, but for being.  Just for being.  I love you.  Words to hear in the midst of darkness, words to cling to in the midst of doubt.  In the maelstrom of living and of dying we hear and then - by grace - speak these words, they are all we have: I love you.


Saturday, January 5, 2019


Happy Epiphany!  I know!  You must be thinking: “Can it get any better?  What a run on major celebrations!  Christmas, then New Years and now,” drumroll and fanfare, “Epiphany!”  Wow.  Take a breath.  Slow it down.  Wouldn’t do to get too excited.  Please, pace yourself.  

OK, enough silliness.  But, there was a time when the big celebration in the life of the people of God was Epiphany.  Christmas was at best a minor celebration, a story read at night accompanied with hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  Epiphany, on the other hand, was the big feast day, worship and singing, feasting and gift-giving.  This was the day that the community of faith looked forward to with joy and with hope.  It was a day of orienteering.

Wait.  What?  Orienteering.  Ask a scout, if you know one.  I first discovered this activity when we lived in England many years ago.  It was an outdoor kind of activity.  A getting lost and then found again kind of thing.  Orienteering is about using the tools of navigation to find your way around the wilderness.  Maybe with just a map and a compass, maybe with more sophisticated global positioning devices now days, perhaps it is easier than it used to be.  But there are still choices to be made, a commitment to follow whatever star you choose to follow.  

I believe that is why the symbol for Epiphany is the star that guided the wise men to the child in Bethlehem.  Not to spend more time on the cute baby stories, but to symbolize the need for a guiding star that will take us where we need to go.  Or to help us become who we need to become.

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Christian life is often depicted as a journey.  John Bunyan’s classic work Pilgrim’s Progress is but one example of this.  Hidden in all these metaphors is the concept of the map, the guide, the star that leads us along the way.  We like to think we can find our own way.  But the truth is we need help.  We need study, first of all, and we need the willingness to go, to leave where we are to go and seek.  But we also need mentors and guides, we need helpers and leaders as we journey through this life.  And of course we, being good church folk, would say that Christ is our guide, Jesus is our leader.  

Of course that is true.  But also kind of vague.  Jesus is our guide when he turns water into wine?  Christ is our leader when he walks on water?  Step right up, you first.  I’m not just poking fun, well, not just.  I’m asking a serious question.  If Epiphany is about the light that shines forth, about seeing and knowing that presence and that invitation, that call from God through Christ, then what is it that we follow?  What is our star?

Mark 12:28-31  And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"  29 Jesus answered, "The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one;  30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  31 The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 

Polaris, or Alpha Ursuae Minoris, is the official name of the star we usually call the North Star.  It is the one that sits above the north pole and has been a guide to navigation for almost all of human history.  When you see those time lapse photographs of the stars, Polaris is the one around which all the others spin.  

The scribe who approaches Jesus is asking for Polaris.  What is the law by which all the others are measured?  What is our guiding light, the mentor that will take us in hand and lead us toward the Kingdom?

In 2004, Dr. Scot McKnight wrote a book titled “The Jesus Creed.”  In it he argues that this passage is that guiding star for all of us as Christians.  If we could let these “commandments” be our guide, shaping our behavior, directing our decisions, transforming us as individuals and as the community, then we too would be “not far” from the kingdom which is what Jesus says to the scribe who asked the question in the first place.

The question was “which commandment is first of all?”  At least in our translation. Others say “foremost” or “most important.”  Jesus had just come through the Palm Sunday experience, had been sparring with other leaders of the Jews over issues like politics and authority and power, and now was approached by this scribe who seems a little different.  Not trying to trap Jesus into saying something intemperate or inflammatory, he was genuinely curious, or earnestly seeking.  Sum up the law, he asked, tell me what path to take, what priority to follow.  Tell me who I am supposed to be.  The law defined them, they were people of the law, but now this one at least was asking what does that look like.  

Sometimes Jesus was frustratingly complex in his responses and stories.  Other times he was clear as crystal, and the struggle is not in the what - as in what did he mean - but in the how - as in how do we possibly do this.  This is one of those crystal clear yet overwhelmingly troubling times.  The axis around which all we are and all we are called to be and do is worship and service, or devotion and ethics. 

Love God with all heart and soul and mind and strength.  Mark misquotes the OT (Deut 6:5) and adds in “mind” as part of the formula.  His intention was that we hear Jesus as being all inclusive - emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical power directed toward God.  God is the center, the source, the reason for our continued existence, source of our joy and contentment.  God is all in all.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  That would answer the question - the greatest commandment.  But Jesus continues on.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  “The second is this.”  Deutera autois. Could be second, probably is, that is the most common translation of that phrase.  But it could be “and also” or “next is.”  Meaning not second of a series, but a continuation of the first.  It is more, one commandment love God and love neighbor.  Two sides of the same coin.  Or the practice of one is found in the other.  How do we love God? By loving neighbor.  How do we find it possible to love neighbors?  By loving God.  We circle around these guiding thoughts, guiding commandments like stars orbiting Polaris.  

Practicing Jews still today, like they did centuries ago, write this commandment on a little piece of paper and attach it to the doorframes of their houses.  You remember, we talked about it not too long ago.  It is called the mezuzah, and it is the little reminder that they are guided by the law, summed up in these words.  It has become their Polaris. 

By the way, in looking up information about Polaris, I learned something interesting.  The north star, is not just a star.  In fact it is a collection of stars, a multiple star it is called.  First of all it is a collection of three stars - a trinity if you will - and then there are two others that are a little more distant but come together to make up the light that we see.  Interesting, don’t you think.  A trinity with a dual emphasis.  God the three in one, approached by worship (love God) and service (love neighbor).