Friday, December 25, 2015

God's Little Secret: The Mystery of the Incarnation

A Sermon for Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7–10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1–4, (5–12) • John 1:1-14

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet
   of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
— Isaiah 52:7

God Entered the World Quietly
Well, today’s the day, the day we’ve been waiting for, the day we’ve been preparing for, the day we’ve been anticipating, the day of our Lord and Savior’s birth…. Well, not exactly. Because the birth happened last night; it happened in the middle of the night while we were sleeping. We missed it; the whole world missed it, save for a few shepherds who received an angelic birth announcement.
     You see, God entered the world quietly. God didn’t want the world to know he had arrived. But not even God could keep a secret, not this secret, not when it came to the birth of his only Son. God just had to tell somebody. And look who he chose: some homeless guys who lived out of doors, who worked at a job that nobody wanted, and who nobody was going to believe anyway. And so, God’s little secret is safe, for the time being at least.
     But why would God want to keep his arrival on earth a secret?... Because God didn’t want to frighten us away. You see, something is wrong with us; something inside of us is broken. And that something is something only God can fix. But here’s the dilemma. That something which is broken in us also makes us terrified of God, so terrified that God has a hard time getting close enough to heal us with his gracious and loving presence.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

And the Soul Felt It's Worth

A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2–7 • Psalm 96 • Titus 2:11–14 • Luke 2:1–14 (15–20)

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Tonight is a Holy Night. Tonight is the night that we’ve been waiting for; tonight is the night we’ve been anticipating. Tonight is a Holy Night because tonight—this very Eve—we enter the Mystery of Christmas.
     Some of us have been preparing for this Mystery; some of us have not. Some of us have been getting ready for four long weeks, some of us for two weeks, some of us for two days or two hours. And some of us, have made no preparations at all. Maybe we forgot to get ready, or maybe we didn’t know how to get ready. But on this Holy Night, it doesn’t matter because the Mystery of Christmas takes us all by surprise,… ready or not.
For nine months, Mary and Joseph knew what was coming. For nine months, they made preparations as best as they could. But anyone who has prepared for the birth of a child, not least their first child, knows that plans have a way of changing. {For example, your wife might go into labor on the morning of January first. And you might be living in Pasadena, California at the time. And the Rose Bowl parade might be happening. And the parade route, the six-mile-long parade route, just might be standing between you and Hunting Memorial Hospital. Yes, plans have a way of changing.}
     Mary and Joseph could not have predicted that Augustus would issue an edict “that all the world should be registered.” They could not have predicted that they would have to make a long, arduous journey, when Mary was full to bursting. Nevertheless, they had some idea of what was coming because an angel of the Lord had told them.
     The shepherds, however, had no idea what was coming. They were out watching their flocks by night. This is what they did every night. They watched on Monday night, they watched on Tuesday night, they watched on Wednesday night, and they watched on this Holy Night. Of course, it didn’t feel particularly holy or special. It felt like any other Thursday night in the fields... Until suddenly, they were taken by surprise when an angel of the Lord appeared. The angel told them all about the Mystery of Christmas and invited them to come and see it for themselves.
     Mary and Joseph were prepared; the shepherds weren’t. Yet both were invited by God to participate in the Mystery of Christmas. It is indeed a Holy Night for the grace of God abounds for the whole wide world, every single one of us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What Do You Want Jesus to Take Away from You This Christmas?

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

The Mystery of Christmas
This is the season of Advent. Advent is the time of the color blue. Blue is the color of kings and queens. Blue is a serious color, and something serious is about to happen.
     A King is coming, but this is not the kind of king that people thought was coming. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn. This King is still coming. This is the great mystery we call Christmas.
     You know, a mystery is hard to enter sometimes. That is why this time of Advent is so important. Sometimes people can walk right through a mystery and not even know it is there. This time of year we sometimes get so busy and are in such a hurry that we miss the mystery. Maybe we forget to get ready, or maybe we need to know how to get ready.
     The Church learned a long time ago that people need a way to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery like Christmas. So the Church set aside four weeks to get ready. This is such a great Mystery that it takes that long to get ready…

adapted from Godly Play

The Christmas List
But what exactly can we do to get ready? Well, last week I suggested that we each make a Christmas list. But not of the ordinary kind, not a Christmas list with things on it like:

Sunday, December 06, 2015

What Do You Want Jesus to Bring You for Christmas?

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

The Mystery of Christmas
This is the season of Advent. Advent is the time of the color blue. Blue is the color of kings and queens. Blue is a serious color, and something serious is about to happen.
A King is coming, but this is not the kind of king that people thought was coming. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn. This King is still coming. This is the great mystery we call Christmas.
     You know, a mystery is hard to enter sometimes. That is why this time of Advent is so important. Sometimes people can walk right through a mystery and not even know it is there. This time of year we sometimes get so busy and are in such a hurry that we miss the mystery. Maybe we forget to get ready, or maybe we need to know how to get ready.
     The Church learned a long time ago that people need a way to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery like Christmas. So the Church set aside four weeks to get ready. This is such a great Mystery that it takes that long to get ready…

adapted from Godly Play

Thursday, November 26, 2015

When Mark Twain Tried to Move Thanksgiving Day... Brilliant Wit

Twain's Own Account

"This talk about Mr. Whittier’s seventieth birthday reminds me that my own seventieth arrived recently — that is to say, it arrived on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist — the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the count closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand.

The President and the Governors had to have my birthday — the 30th — for Thanksgiving Day, and this was a great inconvenience to Colonel Harvey, who had made much preparation for a banquet to be given to me on that day in celebration of the fact that it marked my seventieth escape from the gallows, according to his idea — a fact which he regarded with favor and contemplated with pleasure, because he is my publisher and commercially interested. He went to Washington to try to get the President to select another day for the national Thanksgiving, and I furnished him with arguments to use which I thought persuasive and convincing, arguments which ought to persuade him even to put off Thanksgiving Day a whole year — on the ground that nothing had happened during the previous twelvemonth except several vicious and inexcusable wars, and King Leopold of Belgium's usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo State, together with the insurance revelations in New York, which seemed to establish the fact that if there was an honest man left in the United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his seventieth birthday. But the colonel came back unsuccessful, and put my birthday celebration off to the 5th of December.

I had twice as good a time at this seventieth, as I had had at Mr. Whittier’s seventieth, twenty eight years earlier. In the speech which I made were concealed many facts. I expected everybody to discount those facts 95 per cent, and that is probably what happened. That does not trouble me, I am used to having my statements discounted. My mother had begun it before I was seven years old. Yet all through my life my facts have had a substratum of truth, and therefore they were not without preciousness. Any person who is familiar with me knows how to strike my average, and therefore knows how to get at the jewel of any fact of mine and dig it out of its blue-clay matrix. My mother knew that art. When I was seven or eight, or ten, or twelve years old — along there — a neighbor said to her "Do you ever believe anything that that boy says?" My mother said "He is the wellspring of truth, but you can't bring up the whole well with one bucket" — and she added, "I know his average, therefore he never deceives me. I discount him 30 per cent for embroidery, and what is left is perfect and priceless truth, without a flaw in it anywhere."

When Mark Twain Tried to Move Thanksgiving

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Paying Tribute to the King of Kings: Living Lives of Gratitude in the Kingdom of God's Grace

Jesus ascended to the throne in a very different sort of manner than most kings. He was and is, of course, a very different sort of king of a very different sort of kingdom. His sacrificial ascension to the throne says a lot about who Jesus is, how he rules, and the nature and values of his kingdom. It also says alot about who we are and how we are called to live as his faithful subjects in this world.  

                              Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                                  Take our lips and speak through them.
                                  Take our hearts and see through them.
                                  Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

You Don’t Vote for Kings
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year, which means… that next Sunday is the beginning of Advent. Today is also Christ the King Sunday because on this day we celebrate the fact that Jesus is a king, and not just a king, but the King, the one to whom God has given all authority on heaven and on earth. And if Jesus is King, then we are his subjects. Now this isn’t language that we are accustomed to using. After all, we live in a democratic society, so we don’t really know what it means to live as subjects to a king. Our leaders don’t ascend to a throne without our say; we vote for them.

How Did You Become King, Then?
This reminds me of a scene from the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In this British comedy, King Arthur has set out on his quest for the Holy Grail, and he comes upon an unknown castle. So he asks a couple of the local peasants, “What knight lives in that castle over there?” The man and woman do a lot of talking, but they don’t answer his question. So Arthur gets impatient and begins to shout, “Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!” Taken aback, the woman responds, “Order, eh? Who does he think he is?”

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Living as People of Grace: Gathering the Resources We Need to Follow Jesus

My first sermon at Grace Episcopal Church in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Audio of the Sermon can be found here.

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Going on a Journey
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are going on a trip, and you are packing. What are you going to take with you? Pause… Well, that’s a hard question to answer because it all depends on where you are going and what you will be doing? For example, if you were going to visit castles in Scotland, you would pack differently than if you were traveling to Nepal to climb Mt. Everest. Something that would be essential on one trip, might be unnecessary and even burdensome on a different trip.

The people of Grace have been on a journey for over 135 years. Like the Israelites, who spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, their journey has taken place in stages. There have been seasons of travel, and there have been periods of camping in one place. This past year the people of Grace have been in a period of transition. They have been gathering resources, as they prepare to set out on a new leg of their journey with God. But what will we take with us? Well, it depends upon the nature and purpose of our trip. It depends upon what God is calling us to be and do. It depends upon what gifts and resources God has equipped us with.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Tears in a Bottle: All Saints Sunday

My final sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church.

                              Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                              Take our lips and speak through them.
                              Take our hearts and see through them.
                              Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

All Hallows Day
Today is November 1st, and on this day we celebrate All Saints Day. This day used to be known as All Hallows Day, and the evening before as All Hallows Eve, which of course we have come to know as Halloween. The Old English word “hallow” means “holy,” which is something special, set apart, and sacred. So when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We are really saying to God, “let your name be made holy;” “may we recognize and treat your name as sacred and special.”

Likewise, in the New Testament, the English word saint translates the Greek word for holy. So a saint is a holy person. But—and this is a very important point—in the New Testament, all Christians were called saints, all Christians were regarded as holy. In other words, unlike today, it wasn’t just a special class of Christians who were called saints. All Christians were saints, were holy by virtue of the simple fact that they had the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. When a person came to trust Jesus Christ, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so, they became holy the moment they became a Christian. That’s why, for example, when Paul writes the Christians in Ephesians, he addresses them as saints.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1–2).
So today, on All Saints Day, we remember before God all Christians who have passed way, who have been taken away by death… death, that “shroud that is cast over all peoples, [that] sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isaiah 25:8).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Called Out of Darkness: What We Need to Follow Jesus on the Way

Year B • Track 2 • Proper 25

Jeremiah 31:7­9 • Psalm 126 • Hebrews 7:23–28 • Mark 10:46–52

                           Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                            our lips and speak through them.
                           Take our hearts and see through them.
                           Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

The Question
What do you need to follow Jesus? What do you need to follow Jesus more closely, more consciously, and more faithfully? That’s the question we are going to wrestle with today. What do we need to follow Jesus?

This question is directly related to the question that Jesus poses in today’s episode: “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s a simple, straightforward question. Yet how one answers this question has profound implications for the life of discipleship. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, so his answer does not surprise us: “Master, let me see again” (10:51). Jesus is merciful and grants his request: “Go; your faith has made you well,” and immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight.

How remarkable, not simply because it happened immediately, but because it happened at all. Of course, we are not surprised that Jesus restored his sight; this has become all too familiar. But sometimes we need to pause and reflect because, despite its familiarity, it is still remarkable. Can you imagine what it would have been like for Bartimaeus to receive his sight, to be called out of darkness into light, to see the face of the one who just gave you sight?

That being said, today’s gospel is not only about the recovery of one man’s sight. For notice how the story ends. After Bartimaeus regains his sight, he follows Jesus on the way (10:52b). Jesus had said, “Go,” but Bartimaeus followed. So, today’s episode is not simply a miracle story, it’s also parable, a parable about discipleship.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

One Such Child

What's the difference between Jesus' call to become like a child,
and his call to welcome one such child in his name?

                              Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                                  Take our lips and speak through them.
                                  Take our hearts and see through them.
                                  Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Back to Square One
All summer long we have been making our way through the Gospel of Mark, and last week our story a dramatic turn. For the first eight chapters of Mark, Jesus had been announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom. He had demonstrated its power and presence with powerful words and powerful deeds. He exorcised demons, cleansed lepers, and healed the lame. He raised the dead, and restored hearing and sight to the deaf and the blind. He stilled storms, walked on the sea, and fed thousands with just a few loaves. Surely God was with him. Yet, this Jesus also consorted with tax-collectors and sinners and Gentiles. He disregarded purity traditions, rewrote parts of the Law, and committed blasphemy. So perhaps he was just crazy, or perhaps he was in league with the Devil.

So, for eight chapters the questions and the rumors and the speculations circulated. Who is this Jesus? Is he John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets of old? Or is he just a drunkard and a glutton, a false prophet leading the people astray. Even his own disciples struggled to understand Jesus and his mission. But then in last’s week’s episode, Peter declares, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, the disciples get it right. Finally, they have come to the conclusion that Mark’s readers have known since the opening verse of the gospel, that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed.

But this glorious moment of recognition is short-lived. As soon as Jesus’ identity is known, he lets the disciples know the road that lies ahead. He begins to teach them, saying, that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It sounds like the talk of a madman, so Peter rebukes Jesus as though he had a demon; and Jesus rebukes Peter right back. Now we are back to square one. Who is this Jesus? And what does it mean to follow him?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Gathering Up the Crumbs of God's Grace

How do we gather the resources we need to live lives of of grace, lives that are shaped by God’s love and forgiveness, lives that are animated by the Spirit of God’s mercy and compassion?

A Sermon on Mark 8:11–21
I have a confession to make. I love doggy bags. It’s true. I love eating out at restaurants, and putting the leftovers into doggy bags, and then taking them home for later. The bigger the bag, the better. So for me, the best restaurants are those that offer an unlimited supply of chips or bread.
     When Rebekah and I were dating, we attended church here at St. John’s. On Sundays after worship, we would often head over to the Spaghetti Warehouse. I loved that place. When you sat down, they would bring out miniature loaves of free bread; one loaf after another throughout the meal, as many as you wanted. Now I didn’t exactly stuff myself with bread, but let’s just say that by the time my shrimp alfredo arrived, I only needed a small portion to feel satisfied. That meant that more went into the doggy bag. I think Rebekah was a bit embarrassed when the servers saw how much of my fettuccini went into the bag (in fact, she is a bit embarrassed even hearing the story today), but not me. It was like getting two meals for the price of one, which satisfied me to no end.


Now I begin my sermon with this talk of loaves and leftovers, because that’s what Jesus and his disciples are talking about in today’s gospel lesson. Of course, if you’ve been here at all during the past several weeks, you shouldn’t be surprised by this. We have been reading through Mark’s Gospel, and we have discovered something interesting. In five out of the last six readings, some mention of bread or loaves or crumbs has been made. In other words, Mark has left us a trail of breadcrumbs, a series of clues that hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the kingdom of God. So for six weeks now, we have been following the breadcrumbs, trying to solve the mystery of the loaves. Well, today is the day; today we arrive at the end of the breadcrumb trail, and all will be revealed. But before we get to today’s reading, let’s retrace some of our steps.
     The trail of breadcrumbs began back in chapter six when Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread. Immediately, after the feeding, Jesus put his disciples into a boat and sent them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which was Gentile territory. Or at least, that was the plan. But the disciples never made it; their hearts just weren’t in it. All night long, they struggled to make headway against an adverse wind, but to no avail. So in the predawn hours, Jesus came to them walking upon the sea. He had hoped to inspire them by revealing to them his divine identity, but they failed to recognize him. Then when he got into boat and everything became calm, the disciples were beside themselves with astonishment. According to Mark, all of the disciples’ failures on this trip were due to the fact that “they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). It’s a very cryptic explanation. What was it that the disciples didn’t understand? And what’s all this business about the loaves?

Well, the loaves in question, specifically refer to the leftover fragments following the feeding of the five thousand. After all the people had eaten their fill, the disciples gathered up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread. Now, we normally think the baskets of leftovers are mentioned to illustrate just how miraculous the feeding really was, and it does do that. But the baskets of loaves signify something more. The five thousand who were fed were all Jews, and the leftovers were intended for Gentiles. That’s why Jesus compelled his disciples to cross over into Gentile territory as soon as the leftovers had been collected. The disciples had just returned from a successful Jewish mission; so Jesus was sending them on a Gentile mission. But the disciples resisted. They didn’t understand about the loaves. They didn’t understand that the blessings of the kingdom were meant for Jews and Gentiles. Instead, they were fundamentally opposed to Gentile mission, and their participation in it. They had hardened their hearts to what God was doing in their midst.  
Evidence for the disciples’ resistance to Gentile mission litters trail of breadcrumbs. In last week’s gospel, Jesus was once again playing host to a crowd of thousands. But on this occasion, it wasn’t a crowd of Jews, but of Gentiles. “I have compassion for the crowd,” Jesus said to his disciples,” because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way” (8:2–3a). Yet the disciples show no compassion, “How can anyone feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (8:4). At first blush, it sounds like the disciples have forgotten about the previous feeding. But they remember; they haven’t forgotten. They simply don’t like the idea of feeding Gentiles. “How can anyone give these people—these Gentiles—the blessings of the kingdom that rightfully belong to God’s chosen people?”
     Yet, despite their resistance, Jesus involves his disciples in the Gentile feeding. After blessing seven loaves of bread, Jesus instructs the disciples to distribute them to the people. And afterwards, the disciples pick up seven basketfuls of leftovers, once again far more than what they began with. Yet, despite their participation in this Gentile feeding, the disciples’ resistance to Gentile mission remains in place. It does not decrease; in fact, it intensifies.

This brings us to today’s reading, which is the climactic episode. Jesus and the disciples are back in the boat, and they are heading back across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory. Bu Mark points out that the disciples have forgotten to take any bread; they have no bread with them, except for a single loaf. This leads Jesus to issue them a warning: “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”
     Now I have to tell you, this is a serious warning. Jesus isn’t playing around. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. And it so infuriated the Pharisees that they immediately went out and began to conspire with the Herodians about how to destroy Jesus (3:6). But why would Jesus issue such a warning simply because the disciples had forgotten to pack some loaves of bread? Well, it’s because they didn’t forget; it’s because they neglected to bring extra loaves. You see, they are headed back into Gentile territory, and they don’t want a repeat performance of the feeding of the four thousand. And so, they didn’t absent-mindedly forget to bring extra loaves, they intentionally neglected to bring extra loaves. By refusing to take extra loaves, they are hoping to prevent another Gentile feeding. But they have crossed the line; they have moved from passive resistance to Gentile mission to active opposition to Jesus. Jesus’ disciples have been infected with the same hardness of heart exhibited by Jesus’ opponents. That’s why he warns them about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. And that’s why he interrogates them using such harsh language:
Why are you talking about having no bread?
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? ­
The disciples still don’t understand about the loaves. They still don’t understand the meaning and significance of the basketfuls of leftovers. If they weren’t so recalcitrant, so resistant to Gentile mission, they might have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. But they are afraid. The Jewish people have been under foreign occupation for the better part of six hundred years. They have been waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the arrival of God’s kingdom. And then it happens. Jesus comes, and the people of God began to experience the freedom and blessings of the kingdom.
      But the Gentiles show up and jump in line. “It’s not fair,” say the disciples. “Jesus, let the children be fed first; it isn’t right to take the children’s bread away from them and give it to the Gentile dogs.” They just don’t understand, so they resist Gentile mission. So in a last-ditch effort to break through their hardness of heart, Jesus focuses his disciples attention on the baskets of leftover loaves they gathered after each feeding.
Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17–21).
Well, truth be told, we don’t understand either; we are in the same boat with the disciples on this. But here’s what Jesus is trying to get his disciples and us to understand. Both feedings produced an abundance of leftovers. And as we have already seen, the twelve baskets of leftovers following the Jewish feeding are for Gentiles. It follows, then, that the seven baskets of leftovers following the Gentile feeding are for Jews, specifically those Jews who have not yet heard or bought into the good news of the kingdom. If the disciples are concerned that fellow Jews—who have suffered so much at the hand of Gentiles—are going to miss out on the blessings of the kingdom because those Gentile dogs have cut in line ahead of them, they need not worry. The blessings of God are for Jew and Gentile alike, and there is more than enough to go around, regardless of what order the blessings occur in.

But there is a bit more that Jesus wants us to see and hear, namely this: leftovers imply ministry. After the feedings, the disciples gathered up the broken pieces of bread so that nothing would be lost (cf. John 6:12). Those baskets of leftovers—those doggy bags—were meant to be consumed, not by the disciples, but by those who had not yet tasted the good news of the kingdom. In Jesus, God pours out his grace, love, and forgiveness without measure. In Christian baptism, we are filled with these blessings to overflowing. And so, in baptism, we not only enter into the kingdom of God, we are also called into ministry because leftovers imply ministry. When God loves us, there are always leftovers. When God forgives us, there is always extra, because the grace God gives is always more than we need. And so, we gather up the leftovers of God’s love and forgiveness, and we share it with others, and that is ministry because ministry is what happens to the leftovers. As Henri Nouwen writes: “Ministry is when two people toast their glasses of wine and something splashes over. Ministry is the extra.”[1]
     That is such an important truth because, like the disciples, there are times when we find it hard to love and forgive, when we find ourselves resistant to extending the grace of God to others. Sometimes, for example, we find it hard to forgive someone who has hurt us, perhaps because they have hurt us before and we are afraid of simply opening ourselves to more pain and suffering. But we know that God calls us to forgive, after all, in the Lord’s prayer, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And so, we try to manufacture forgiveness, but it doesn’t work because our own resources for forgiveness are so miniscule. Forgiving someone who has hurt us—be it friend or foe—is like trying to feed thousands of hungry people with just a few loaves and fish.


But the truth is, we cannot manufacture forgiveness; we simply don’t have the resources. But the good news is that we are not in the manufacturing business; we are in the distribution business. When we forgive someone, it is not our own forgiveness that we are offering; rather, we are extending the forgiveness that God has blessed us with in Christ. God calls us to forgive others, but God does not expect us to generate our own forgiveness out of our own resources. Rather, God is expecting us to gather up the crumbs of his grace—the leftovers from those times when we ourselves have experienced God’s forgiveness—and then to offer those leftovers to the one who has hurt us. That is ministry because ministry is what happens to the leftovers of God’s grace, ministry is the extra.
     Now this does not make forgiveness automatic or easy, but it does make it possible. And so, when you find it hard to forgive, when the thought of forgiving someone triggers resistance in you, consider this. Consider taking some time to remember specific occasions in your life when you experienced God’s forgiveness, especially those occasions when God’s forgiveness came through another human being. Reflect on those times and give thanks, write them down or tell another person, for these are the ways in which we gather up the leftovers of God’s grace. These are the ways in which we gather the resources we need to live lives of grace, lives that are shaped by God’s love and forgiveness, lives that are animated by the Spirit of God’s mercy and compassion.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Nouwen with Christiansen and Laird, Spiritual Direction, 131.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Leftover Loaves: A Markan Mystery

The Strange Exchange Between Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24–30).

What did Jesus mean when when he said, "Let the children be fed first, it isn't right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." And what was the Syrophoenician woman referring to when she talked about the dogs eating children's crumbs under the table? And how do the disciples fit into it all, the same disciples who earlier didn't understand about the loaves? Follow the trail of breadcrumbs and see if you can solve the mystery before Encyclopedia does.

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Mystery of the Kingdom
In the evenings, I like to read to the kids while they are eating at the dinner table. Recently, I have been reading them stories from the Encyclopedia Brown series. If you don’t know these stories, Encyclopedia Brown is a boy detective. His real name is Leroy, but most people call him Encyclopedia because he is so smart. His dad is the police chief in fictional Idaville, and so sometimes Encyclopedia helps him solve crimes that have stumped the police. But mostly, he solves cases around his neighborhood. There are two things I like about these stories. First, they are short. And second, each story provides all of the clues that readers need to solve the mystery on their own. Sometimes the clues are obvious. But sometimes you have to reread the story a couple of times before you figure it out. And sometimes, you just have to look up the answers in the back of the book. This technique makes the reader more active, more engaged, more involved in the story.
     The Gospel of Mark does something quite similar. Mark is also a mystery story. It is a mystery about the kingdom of God, set in the small backwater region of Galilee on the outskirts of the great Roman Empire. At the center of this mystery is an obscure Jew, named Jesus. And everybody in the story is trying to figure out who he is and where he gets his power and authority to preach, to exorcise demons, to pronounce forgiveness, to heal the sick, and to do a host of other things. Now Mark has left his readers clues to help them discover for themselves the true nature of Jesus’ identity and mission. Some of the clues are obvious; others not so much. Sometimes Mark’s stories about Jesus make sense to us on the first reading, and sometimes we have to go back and read them over and over again, pondering them in our hearts and minds. And  sometimes we wish we could just look up the answers in the back of the book.[1]

Jesus’s Response to the Syrophoenician Woman… Gentile Prejudice?
Take today’s episode with Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Getting to B, to Bethsaida: Gathering Resources for Mission

In Mark 6:45-53, Mark recounts the episode of Jesus walking on the sea. The disciples have been sent to the other side of the sea, but they struggle through the night against an adverse wind. When Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea, the narrator says something very curious, "He intended to pass by." Moreover, the episode ends with a very enigmatic statement. “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). So what's going on here in Mark, and how might it relate to us?

I have a good friend named Rob Voyle ( I first met Rob at the General Convention in Anaheim, California in 2009. We met through a mutual friend, and we both had booths in the convention hall. At the end of the first full day, Rob came by my booth, and said with his New Zealand accent, “Let’s go get a beer, mate.” I was tired, and I don’t actually like beer, but I went along anyway, and I am glad I did because Rob is brilliant. Rob is a priest, a psychologist, and a consultant.

In his work as a church consultant, folks often say to Rob, “People don’t like change, especially church people.” But Rob disagrees. It’s not change per se that people don’t like, but the type of change that people will either accept or reject. “People don’t want to be changed; they want to be blessed” (Dr. Stephen Gilligan). For example, if you get a raise at work, you’re happy; that’s the sort of change you like. So if you have ever experienced a blessing in life, you have experienced some kind of change. And that is Rob’s passion in life, helping people and organizations ensure that the changes they seek to make are sustainable blessings.

The Kingdom of God
When Jesus announced the arrival of God’s kingdom, he was announcing change. “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent—be changed—and believe the good news” (1:15). Now some people experienced the kingdom as a blessing, not least those whom Jesus healed by the power of the kingdom. But others, such as the scribes and Pharisees, opposed the Jesus’ kingdom proclamation, for they did not perceive him or his message as a blessing.
But it wasn’t just religious opponents who exhibited resistance. On occasion, Jesus’ own disciples show signs of resisting the kingdom of God. That’s what we see in today’s gospel. And again, it wasn’t simply that the disciples didn’t like change. After all they gave up their livelihoods to follow Jesus because they believed that life with Jesus was better than life without Jesus. But they did not welcome every change that the kingdom entailed. And that’s what I want us to look at today.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sitting with Jesus... An Introduction to Centering Prayer

In the Spring and Fall of 2014, I taught a class on Centering Prayer at St. John's Episcopal Church entitled "Sitting with Jesus" which is a reference to the story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. We spent more than six weeks learning Centering Prayer, but during the first few weeks I produced a class handout. I am making them available here to be used as is or to be modified to fit anyone's situation.

Session 1 — Intention pdfdoc

Session 2 — Attention • pdfdoc

Session 3 — Thoughts • pdfdoc

Session 4 — More Thoughts • pdfdoc

Session 5 — The Inner Room • pdfdoc

Session 6 — Disciplines of the Beloved • pdfdoc

(They each fit on a single page, 8½ × 11, double-sided, folded in half.)


Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Tale of Two Banquets

Dining with Herod in the Kingdom of Hell 
Dining with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven
In the Gospel of Mark, the author inserts the flashback-story of John the Baptist's death right before Jesus' feeding of the five thousand. In doing this, Mark sets up a contrast between Herod Antipas and Jesus, between the this worldly-values of Rome as reflected in his macabre birthday banquet and between the values of the Kingdom of God as embodied in the banquet Jesus hosts for five thousand people who are hungry for truth and bread.

RCL • Year B • Proper 10 • Track 2
Amos 7:7–15 • Psalm 85:8–13 • Ephesians 1:3–14 • Mark 6:14–29

John the Prophet
A few weeks ago, on June 24th, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. That is, we celebrated John the Baptist’s birthday. In today’s gospel, we find ourselves at another feast where we witness the circumstances and events that led to John’s death. I call it the Banquet from Hell.

As we all know, John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. When the Gospel of Mark opens, when the curtain lifts, John is the first character we see on stage. He is dressed like the prophet Elijah, and he is out in the Judean wilderness announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. “The Lord is coming soon. Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” John’s message struck a chord. Crowds of people were heading out into the wilderness to be baptized by John, to make themselves reading for the coming of God’s kingdom. In short, John was leading a spiritual revival, so how does he end up with his head on a dinner platter? Why would anybody kill a baptist, some crazy guy who was out in the middle of nowhere dunking people in a river?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Useless Tree

I have been making my way through Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen (with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. The second chapter is about prayer, and it opens with the following story: 
A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?”
The apprentice looked at his master and said: “No . . . why?” 
“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.”
Later on in the chapter Nouwen writes:
The world says, "If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless." Jesus says: "Come spend some useless time with me." If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us—what prayer will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel—God cannot easily speak to us. But if we can detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to "waste" a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our "useless" time will transform us, and everything around us will be different.
Prayer is being unbusy with God instead of being busy with other things. Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God. 

From Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (pages 17, 18). 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Faith in Jesus (Rather than Faith in Faith)

The question isn’t so much, “How much faith do I have?”
The question is, On whom does my faith rest?”

RCL • Year B • Proper 8 • Track 2

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist • June 24th

I like to bring color, beauty, and word together, and so I like to create bulletins for feast days and saint days when we are celebrating them at a special Eucharist.

I am making my files available. Feel free to use them as is or modify them to your own needs.
    • PDF
    • Word

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Frog and Toad and the Kingdom of God

Doing Our Part and Letting God Do God’s Part

RCL • Year B • Proper 6 • Track 2
Ezekiel 17:22-24 • Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 4:(21-25)26-34

The Kingdom of God is Like…

Today’s gospel lesson comes from the fourth chapter of Mark. Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus has been announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom, “Repent,” he would say, “for the kingdom of God has come near.” In other words, “Take notice, God’s kingdom is taking over this broken world; and God demands your allegiance. This is good news.” And Jesus demonstrated the presence of God’s kingdom with powerful words and powerful deeds. He preached with an authority that astounded the crowds; he expelled demons with just a word; and he healed the sick with just a touch. People were amazed. But not everyone saw these things as evidence of God’s kingdom at work. As we heard last week, Jesus’ own family thought he was mental unstable and the scribes claimed he was possessed by Satan.

So Jesus began to be more careful; he began to operate more covertly. For example, instead of speaking about God’s kingdom in plain language, he began to cloak the gospel in little stories that we call parables. Jesus hid the kingdom from plain view so that it might have a better chance to get behind people’s natural defenses. In other words, Jesus used parables as a way to smuggled the gospel behind enemy lines. He hid the kingdom, so that the kingdom might be revealed. As he himself said, “There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (4:22). He hid the kingdom to reveal the kingdom. This may sound absurd, but this is exactly what every farmer and gardener does. This is what we do. We hide seeds in the earth precisely so that they will come to light. If we didn’t hide seeds in this way, we would never experience harvest.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells two parables about seeds and sowers to reveal something about the kingdom of God. Note that in both parables, someone plants a seed, and then what happens with the seed is completely out of their control. For example, in the first parable, a farmer plants a seed, and then he goes about his normal life. And despite his lack of attention and effort, the seed grows. 

Frog and Toad, “The Garden”

This reminds me of a story that I read as a kid and that I like to read to my kids now. It is a story about Frog and Toad. Have you ever heard these stories. If you haven’t, Frog and Toad are good friends, very good friends. And if you read their stories, you soon discover that Frog is the sensible one, and Toad, not so much. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Neighbor's Shifty Son... a tale from China

A few years ago I was in my neighborhood library, when I came across Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk About by Margaret Reed MacDonald. I rechecked it out recently in large part because of the following story about the way in which suspicion can color the way in which we see the world.

The Neighbor’s Shifty Son

A farmer once lost his axe. 

He felt certain that his neighbor had stolen the axe. 
He watched that neighbor with suspicion. 
He noticed that the neighbor’s son seemed as shifty as his father. That boy looked just like a thief. 
The farmer knew he could not trust either of them.

One day when he visited a distant field where he sometimes worked, the farmer discovered his axe. 
He had left it behind the last time he worked the field. 
When the farmer returned home he noticed his neighbor’s son at play. 
The boy looked absolutely normal now.
There seemed nothing shifty or suspicious about him at all.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

How Can They Give Us Their Blessing, If We Don’t Seek Them Out?

In the late 1990s, the late Henri Nouwen gave a series of sermons at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The title of the series of talks was, “The Life of the Beloved.” (By the way, they are available on YouTube. Search for “The Life of the Beloved (Henri Nouwen, 2011)”.) Nouwen suggests that the voice of God that addressed Jesus at his baptism, saying, “You are my beloved. I’m very pleased with you,” also addresses us. Unfortunately, we live in a very busy and noisy world. We are so preoccupied that we lose touch with who we are, and the chaos within and without drowns out the voice of God. Spiritual disciplines are designed, in part, to help us tune out the world and tune into what God is speaking to our hearts and minds.

Nouwen says that spiritual disciplines are the human effort to create some open space in our lives so that we can hear the voice of God telling us who we truly are, his beloved, treasured, and valued sons and daughters. Nouwen then speaks of three disciplines that help us create this space for God’s voice in our lives. They are communion, community, and ministry.

In communion, we spend a little bit of our time every day, sitting with God in silence, or spending time with God by prayerfully reading the Scriptures. And in this discipline of communion, we hear the voice of God calling us the beloved.

Then, in community, we are gathered together in worship and in fellowship. In that community of faith, we hear the voice of God speaking to us through one another. And isn’t it amazing how God’s voice becomes amplified when it comes to us as the voice of another human being. One would have thought that it would be enough for us to hear God’s voice directly. But it appears that God has so designed human beings that we need to hear God’s word of love and blessing being spoken by a friend, a family member, or a brother and sister in Christ. “You are God’s beloved.”

Finally, in ministry, the people of God are sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s love. And listen to what Nouwen says about the discipline of ministry:

Jesus went to the poor, the sick, the dying, to the little ones. And dear friends, I cannot tell you enough how the final voice that calls you the beloved comes from those you care for. That’s a great mystery I want to tell you…. [Those whom we serve], they are the ones who God has chosen to speak his word of love to us.
        Do you remember in the Beatitudes, do you remember what it says? “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the mourning.” It does not say, “Blessed are those who care for the poor.” It does not say, “Blessed are those who console the mourning.” No, no. The blessing is located in the poor. In these people that we want to help, we will find that they carry the blessing in their heart for us, for us to live. They give us life, they give us a sense of God’s presence. And I want to tell you that they whom we go to minister to are the ones who carry in themselves the blessing. And the blessing is the voice of God, saying, “You are my Beloved. On you my favor rests.” We hear that blessing come to us through those who are weak, through those who are poor. And they will lead us closer and closer to the heart of Love.
        That is the great joy I want to announce to you and for you to trust because once you are in deep communion with the poor, you will be able to discover your own poverty, your own weakness, your own brokenness, and not be afraid of it. You will discover, “Yes I am poor too.” When we work with the poor we will become so aware of our own limitations, but the voice of God is saying, “Don’t be afraid because I love you right there where you are poor too.” And so, we become in a way, a fellowship of the weak where the power of God’s grace can manifest itself.
        So keep some space for God’s voice. Some space by praying alone. Some space by forming community. Space by going out and going to those people in your own family, your own friends, and in your own city who need you. They don’t just need you because they are needy, they also need you to give to you their blessing.

So, if there is any truth to this. If the poor have a blessing for us, then how can we find ways—individually and as a community—to enter into relationship with them? Because how can they give us their blessing, which is from God, if we don’t seek them out?