The Church’s Missing Ingredient

a child resting on a shoulder

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I’m tired of the blame.

The health and vitality of the The Episcopal Church and the Mainline generally is an oversimplified story of the 20th Century, too easily shouldered on the leadership of the 21st. It’s always the politics or the practice or the beliefs or the Bible or the liturgy or anything else ad nauseam, but never is it the fighting. Never is it the bickering or the certainty of well-intentioned finger-pointers. Never is it the schismatics who stomp out of the church or the timid who sneak away. Nor is it the rowdy recruiters trying to squeeze blood from a stone, mistaking their own wounds for the miracle.

It is ironic, then, that in this postmodern age in which we are so much more aware of complexity, that we fall so hard for the simple.

Decline of the mainline, and The Episcopal Church is well-documented. It is also a favorite canard of the angry, seeking every opportunity to abuse the faithful. But it is also the favorite of the zealot, eager to drive us closer to where we ought to be. I know I so often fall in that latter camp.

But I am not writing about church decline. This is not a post full of statistics or one that hopes to make the reader desperately see that we are on the Titanic and the iceberg is in sight. You’ve read plenty of those.

You’ve also read plenty of posts about how great everything is and how we just need to love our tradition more. Don’t change a thing! they say. All we need to do is recruit new people. I’m as weary of that ridiculousness as you are.

This is a post that invites us to simply look past the data and the innuendo and name what I have experienced of church. Churches in rural and urban environments; in the north and in the south; in happy times, and more often, depressed and fearful times. And what I’ve observed has been consistent:

  1. We don’t really get why we’re a church and
  2. Our experience is more important to us than our compassion.

These two attributes are deeply connected and not easily named (though I’m trying my best to do that very thing). No mission statement or workshop of the congregation can magically get any lifelong Christian to suddenly understand the faith they’ve inherited. For many, 70 years of unexamined faith is terrifying to discover about themselves, and worse, their parents and elders who taught them.

a main source of conflict

Perhaps the genesis of conflict comes from the embedded “core message” of the gospel.

The church of my childhood is infatuated with The Great Commandment, given in Mark as an extension of the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel), but heard by us as “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the closest we get to a core value from Jesus, and is easy justification to see the purpose of church as worship and practicing radical hospitality. It jibes with the way Jesus treats people in each account.

Many evangelicals and church planters see a different message as central, preferring the conclusion to Matthew, which we call The Great Commission. It includes the great phrase: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” which can be understood as a direct mission to gettin’ those pesky “unchurched” into the Jesus camp.

The church unwittingly sets these two up against each other, perhaps slipping them conveniently into the established frame of Catholic vs. Protestant. But these aren’t conflicting calls. Nor does the former serve the latter: The Great Commandment isn’t justification for The Great Commission, or even its internal marching orders.

They are both about loving and sharing. Sharing something important to us; something we believe would be important to them. But not because we love the thing. Our love is merely the proof of its value. We don’t seek to convert others because GOD is keeping score and that’s the only way we get our reward. We share in something that delights us in hopes that it will delight another, too.

Like when we discover some really good bread, and we tear off a small chunk for ourselves, giving the rest to the person sitting at our table, saying to them

You have to try this!

Because we know they haven’t truly lived until they’ve tasted it.

These two teachings are both radical calls to something we are really, really, really terrible at: putting someone else’s needs first. Not our desire for them, or our control over what they experience; it is our hope that they discover their own experience.

protecting wonder

My own children are fiercely independent. And more importantly, they have incredible imaginations. My son can follow an ant as it crosses the kitchen floor, squatting like a catcher and pointing it out to us. Otherwise, his eyes are transfixed.

His formation comes from these experiences and opportunities that he discovers for himself or we cultivate. So often, these opportunities for all of our children are squashed or eliminated. Replaced with a Funnel and Facts, intellectually force-feeding the justifications for GOD, but never encouraging the experience of GOD. We drive our children out of church and wonder why they never return.

We do this for good reasons, of course. But we don’t do it out of a great sense of GOD’s purpose. It’s all practical. Intellectual, actually. Justifications again.

It isn’t really about compassion, either. It isn’t about the children. And it isn’t about the stranger. It’s all about us.

The demographic data, which shows a stunning lack of diversity in The Episcopal Church, often sited as proof of the evil of inclusion (which takes a little twisting in the brain to make sense), cannot prove the error of our theology, because the theology gives room for lots of belief. But it does prove, perhaps our graver sin: that we welcome people to join us intellectually. But we struggle to both welcome diversity in practice, or encourage diversity in our communities. Our focus is not on showing compassion to those outside the tribe, but comfort to those within it. We unwittingly turn a ‘We’ into an ‘Us and Them’.

planting churches

Two recent posts at Episcopal Cafe, which highlight what we all know to be true: we are caught in a death-spiral of protecting the failing while not allowing ourselves to invest in the new. This was inspired in part by the question asked on the same site: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church Plant more churches?” This question digs deeply into our embedded sense of identity and purpose, which is why our current challenges are so frustrating and confusing. They conflict with, what is for many, the very nature of our church.

This is the macro-level, big picture example of a universal phenomenon. Out of fear for our own present experience, we reject what is the fundamental call to compassion. We aren’t called to obsess about our own experience, but to help encourage the experience of others. To share good bread with them, not horde it for ourselves. Not worrying about whether there will be bread for us tomorrow.

We’re those Children of Israel out in the wilderness, saving up the Manna, then watching it spoil. Then we go back out on the Sabbath to double-check that GOD actually meant what GOD said.

I don’t believe it is as simple as closing some churches to free up cash; though there is much more theological and Scriptural backing for pruning the bush so that the whole plant might flourish: that our whole health is dependent on cutting the unhealthy branches which sap resources from the healthy. It may, in the end, be the only means of long-term growth and stability.

What I see as the more important solution is not found in the gimmicks or the games. It isn’t found in techniques or rules changes. It isn’t found in giving our seminarians more classes to take or in consolidating struggling dioceses. It isn’t found in listening only to bishops in wealthy, urban dioceses, or pitting them up against bishops from the poor, rural ones.

It is found in embracing compassion. New churches thrive in already thriving, hopeful communities. Churches decline where legacy and stability is more important than growth and vitality. The rational, political calculation is to breed a more compassionate church. It is the only way that the legacy congregations can thrive in the 21st Century alongside those new church plants in growing communities.

Unsurprisingly, it is also the theological, scriptural response to the struggles of our diverse communities. It is the only way we can respond to the pain in those areas experiencing continued economic depression and job loss; hunger and persistent racial segregation. The only way we can put ourselves in those places in which our compassion is needed, but rarely seen; in those places of great economic or ethnic growth, but no community to engage.

Most importantly, it is the only way the church can engage in those spheres and with those people we claim to care about. The only way we can fulfill the missio dei and be sacramentally present so that Christ can be revealed in us.

My vision for our future is to fully reject our consumer impulses and embrace a compassionate love that consistently reveals GOD’s love and mercy. A love that informs not only our good work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but in our every practice: in our buildings and bank accounts: in our worship and in our evangelism. It is found in a desire to share bread, not to sustain ourselves or our family. Not to be hospitable or kind. But because that bread is so good and there is enough. Plenty to share.

a heart full of compassion

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it is about us

In truth, the problem is us. It always has been. We’ve failed to see compassion as our most important trait, or any trait of real value. We prefer certainty and strength; efficiency and consistency.

And it is about our critics, far too eager to criticize; not critique or help, but destroy and punish.

It is about our friends who are struggling themselves and confused about their own way forward.

It is about the more recently mighty, which now find themselves struggling to prove their approaches have been any better, really at making disciples. New buildings, yes. “Winning” Christians from other denominations in some sick, Darwinian version of the anti-gospel.

It is about the millions of disaffected, abused, punished, seeking people who want to love, who need compassion, but have so frequently only received punishment. Who only hear the voices of Christian hate. Or more recently, are told that hateful speech is a religious right, but compassionate speech is “political”.

It is about weak leadership who has, for the last 70 years, struggled to preach honestly about Scripture: in many cases refusing to challenge the congregation to receive what we receive in seminary.

It is about bishops and judicatory bodies who have lacked the foresight or the political will to go against the confused and misled congregations and give true priority to health and vitality over the false gospel of independence and outsourced ministry.

It is about us. All of us. If you have ever darkened the door of a church. If your parents have ever darkened the door of the church. If you have ever called yourself a Christian. It is about us.

We want a faith that is easy, but this one isn’t. We want our solutions to be simple, but none of the good ones are. We want to worship without thinking and think without believing and believe without doing and do without praying and pray without worshiping. We want it all and we want it without the baggage that comes with listening and trusting and believing.

Most of all, I think, we want faith to look like the faith of our idealized grandmother, who wrote names in the family Bible, and went to church each week, dragging her children in tow. Who was so kind and generous, bringing her best recipe to the potluck and wearing the best hats. She would harmonize her part of the four and would actually giggle when we would sing her favorite hymn, which was never “Amazing Grace” or “The Church is One Foundation” but “In the bleak mid winter”. Who we would watch give groceries right out of the bag on the way out of the supermarket simply because someone asked her for help. That amazing woman, whose faith is unfathomable to us, inspires us. She defines faith for us.

And it is that faith we refuse. For us, we make it too difficult to replicate: a faith like a 3D printer. Too perfect. Too analyzed. Too much about the recipe. Like the pious young man who thinks he has the formula and Jesus shows him that a formula isn’t enough.

It is not the formula or the faith, it is that spirit of compassion. That loving that comes so deep from within that it cannot possibly originate with us. A compassion too natural that we don’t know how it comes, but it does. A compassion so rebellious it is marveled at. A compassion so dangerous we worry that the recipient can even understand it. A compassion so like the compassion of GOD.

That is how we “fix” the church. A church that reflects the missio dei, that reveals Christ to the world. That actually looks like we believe Christ when He tells Peter “Feed my sheep.”

A faith that can’t be taught through our brains, but experienced through our compassion. Our compassion given and received. Compassion given to us easily like a piece of bread, but taken for the most precious treasure.


The protagonist is Jesus, but the story is about the disciples

what we see

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I love talking with my Dad about church. He’s a priest. I’m a priest. Both of us are very traditional in many ways; very untraditional in many ways. And the best part is that they don’t always match. I greatly appreciate the way we talk, argue, explore, wrestle with our mutual vocations.

Our talk last night was about the Revised Common Lectionary: how it jumps, how it breaks context, how it sometimes fails to assist the congregation in actually knowing our story. Perhaps, most strangely, encouraging us to not know our story.

This week, we skip ahead a chapter. We jump from Matthew 10 to 11, then 13. And the struggle I had with covering Matthew 10 is that we were already taking it out of its context, making it sound like a group of Jesus aphorisms, totally unconnected, then cutting the big finale in half. And yet the voice of chapter 10 was of building up the disciples, naming them apostles: with all of the gifts they need to take on the world.

In 11, Jesus moves on, seemingly alone, to visit John the Baptizer. We then get this teaching, which is totally about discipleship and relationship. John serves as a great metaphor for that relationship, that trust in the Spirit, in Jesus.

In chapter 12, we get more Jesus with disciples, beginning with the Sabbath. This is certainly one of my favorite teachings of Jesus: the breaking of Sabbath law to keep the Sabbath. Then the chapter moves into the crowds and Jesus and signs and the reader could be excused if she got lost in it . More seemingly unconnected and strangely opaque stories. Most clergy don’t want to have to wrestle through this material, anyway, so maybe the team that produced the RCL is onto something.

The chapter ends with a most provocative moment of Jesus hearing that His family is waiting to see Him and Jesus says

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

Then saying these people here are my true family. An idea we’ve recently already explored.

So here we come to 13, this week’s gospel story. Most of us will start and end with what is read here. And yet I don’t know how we can approach this conversation about the seeds and the sower without talking about the vision laid out in chapter 10, without all that Jesus describes in 11, and without all that mixed up stuff in chapter 12. Because the vision of discipleship that this writer we call Matthew paints is not depicted by watching the disciples in action, but by watching Jesus in action.

We see Jesus to see the disciples.

Don’t be confused by Jesus’s central presence in the story. This looks like a life story of Jesus. And we often read it like a biography (or more strangely, an autobiography). But this is really about those disciples, raised up, named apostles, and taught how to do ministry.

Apostles that go and do while Jesus is visiting with John the Baptizer. Apostles that take Jesus’s teachings so seriously that they are willing to break Sabbath law, knowing the consequences. Apostles that were closer to Jesus than His own flesh and blood.

These are the seeds we’re talking about. The seeds that grow from good soil; soil cultivated by working and following their rabbi through inhospitable environments. This isn’t just some metaphor about our going out and finding good people or excusing whatever BS excuse we use for being Christian in name only, or in sincerely held belief only, but without commitment, action, or participation in a community of believers.

For this is the gospel we’re talking about this weekend. This is the metaphor, the parable, the teaching of Jesus: that it isn’t just about seeds or the soil or the sower. Our faith isn’t just about us or our church or even Jesus. It is about it all, all of it! Our work, our faith, our commitment to a path that sometimes sucks and sometimes brings such profound joy that our tears of pain are mixed with tears of happiness and thankfulness.

We celebrate Easter every single week, not because something happened 2,000 years ago, but because something is happening with us, through us, within us every moment we give ourselves as a sincere gift. Not one that brings us joy in giving, but is genuinely given without expectation, without any hope of response. A gift to GOD that doesn’t help us. It doesn’t sustain us. It doesn’t rescue us. It doesn’t make us feel happy or warm our hearts. A gift we give of devotion that comes without the least bit of ego, because that is where we find the gospel.

Sunday, you’ll hear a lot about seeds and sowing. Speculation about what Jesus really means with this metaphor. Who the seeds really are or what/who the soil must be. Making GOD the sower, or maybe its the disciples. I am certain this Sunday’s preaching will be full of people turning a metaphor into an allegory.

This time, this year, you won’t hear it from me. Of course, I’m not preaching this Sunday, but that isn’t why. Why is because this passage can’t survive on its own. And trying to make it so certainly leads to a simplistic Christianity if we simply cast the parts of this tiny piece of scripture as if it were a play.

What it is is our story. This is about us. Our discipleship. Our work. Our faith. It is about seeing past Jesus to His disciples. To see how Jesus empowers them, forms them, builds them up. And then unleashes them to build upon the very elements of a contagious faith.

The Gift: How Jesus tells us to re-gift GOD’s love

a Homily for Easter 6A

Text: John 14:15-21

a picture of a farm house

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Coming Home

When my Dad would go on work trips; he would be gone all day. Often they were overnights. Alpena to Detroit is about five hours each way and when meetings went long, and he couldn’t make it all the way home, he’d stop and finish driving the next day. This happened often enough, probably at least monthly for years, that I got pretty used to it. I didn’t like it that night, of course. I wanted him with us. But the diocese needed him, too.

When he’d come home, the family would feel complete: as if order were restored. We all know that feeling, don’t we? But I always knew he was coming home. Some loved ones of mine didn’t/don’t have that certainty. Dad or Mom wasn’t coming home.

Or when he did, it wasn’t order restored, but unity betrayed. The unreliable one has come asking for trust and love. Fat chance of that!

We often treat Easter like a kind of family reunion–of restoration. The prodigal is home again; the savior’s sacrifice is our collective reward; Dad has come home to tuck me in, kiss my forehead and whisper I love you. I missed you. We’ll play together tomorrow.

That promise of tomorrow’s shared time fills our sleep with comfort dreams and anticipation of a day of constant, permanent attention. An unknowing promise to never leave, to always be here, and to never, ever grow old.

The Fill-In

And yet the Easter story isn’t permanent reunion. And it isn’t restoration of what was before. It isn’t a loved one coming home and making the family whole again. Jesus is no more the conquering ruler in His second life than He was in His first. His students will have to leave school sometime.

Our gospel continues the Maundy Thursday departure story we returned to last week. The one in which Jesus dealt with who the disciples are to be after He has gone. He shows them that they know GOD already because Jesus reveals GOD.

And just like Philip, we are stuck in the particulars and the physical. Dad returning home and whispering in our ear. A literal return; a physical presence. This week, we look for an Advocate to show up, and to stay: a permanent protector or inspirer. Or at least a divine GPS.

The Holy Spirit, then, a replacement. A step-dad filling in for the deadbeat dad who is leaving forever. His claims of presence ring hollow because we want the real Jesus, the real thing with us and in us. Not the surrogate. Even if the Advocate is better. Even if our work is greater even than Jesus’s. Even if the Advocate helps us transform the world, we still don’t know what she looks like. Or feels like. Or, to be honest, what she even comes here for. Because whether or not we feel like orphans, we certainly act like we are.

The Commandment is love

Orphans we are not. I bring us back to the context of the Last Supper. Just before this part we read today, Jesus gets up from the table and washes the disciples’ feet. And He says to them

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)

A few verses later, the most telling line sneaks in like a given:

If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:17)

Then they eat and Judas leaves to betray them. After he is gone, Jesus offers them a new (old) commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. (John 13:34)

As He loved them, so they love.

Jesus then speaks of Peter’s three denials, describes a house with many rooms, and declares that they know GOD because they hang with Jesus.

The disciples weren’t just worried about losing someone they loved, but also everything He was doing: everything Jesus loved. They thought that without Jesus, the mission would fail. Without Jesus to tell them what to do, the whole thing would fall apart.

So Jesus tells them to simply “keep my commandments,” which we just heard is to love one another. I love you. Love others that way. He is saying to them (and us?) You guys do the hard work of loving each other while I get GOD to send you some help.

Our greatest gift to GOD

This help, which the NRSV translates into English as “the Advocate” is Paraclete in Greek. The word does not mean leader or legal guardian or someone above. But someone beside, standing with. Not carrying us, but helping us stand. Support when we feel alone or face great conflict. Support against injustice and discord; against evil and unintended fear; or with us when we face the death of a loved one or the loss of a friend’s affection.

The promise, then isn’t isolated saving from a powerful deity in the solitude of a personal faith, but the public support for a people who follow Jesus’s teaching: loving each other as Jesus loves us. Knowing GOD because GOD is revealed to us in that very love.

Love we show one another, not because we’re happy, or even because its the right thing to do; but love shown because that is the way to know GOD.

Our greatest praise to GOD isn’t found in any of the prayers in our blessed Prayer Book or in the classic hymns we find in our hymnals. It isn’t found in our flags or our devotion to a cause. It isn’t found in the money we give (or withhold) or the busyness of the groups we join. Our greatest praise is found in our love. That’s how GOD is revealed in this world and our greatest praise to GOD comes when we love. Everything, all of this, depends upon our love.

Love shown in service to each other, in giving to each other, in blessing each other. Love shown in washing feet and anointing heads. Love shown in eating together and drinking merrily with a simple thought:

Jesus loves us and asked us to do this one little thing above all things: love one another.


From Night to Day: reconciling, faith, and the Kingdom walk

a Homily for Lent 3A
Text: John 4:5-42

The Story

Our scene turns from Nicodemus, who seeks Jesus at night to an unnamed woman who stumbles upon him in the middle of the day. I think we are supposed to juxtapose these contrasting characters from chapters 3 and 4. Night/Day. Man/Woman. Named/Nameless. Leader/Commoner. Insider/Outsider. Hebrew/Samaritan. So many differences.

And so much story. I’d understand if you lost track in the middle. Here’s my recap:
Jesus has to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. His followers get hungry and take off. Jesus sits by a well that happens to be the one where Jacob met Rachel. A woman comes up and scandalously converses with this foreign man (alone), discovering (of course) that he isn’t a normal man. The woman goes back and tells everybody; they want to see Jesus for themselves. Disciples return with food. Jesus tells them the true food is ready to be harvested right here. The townspeople meet Jesus and invite him to stick around. He does; for 2 more days.

Big story. Lots of dialogue. And big ideas. Which makes for a pretty cool story of relationships, Jesus, and the mission Jesus is on. We could certainly spend hours on this. Which we won’t [don't worry]. But what makes this story sing is the back story and what they are there to do.

The Back Story

Jacob has 12 sons. And 3,000 years ago, there were 12 tribes. Of course that’s on purpose. These tribes were united under two kingdoms and then, under King David, they became one. Under David’s son, Solomon, they remained a united kingdom. Then, upon Solomon’s death, they fought and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded. Then, two hundred years later, in 730 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom, where the Samaritans are in Jesus’s time.

One of the favorite tactics of conquerors to this day is to replace the identity of the conquered with their own. And one way they do this is by genetically altering the populace. Or, less politely, they rape the women. The children the local women bear are now 1/2 like them. The next set will be 3/4. Then 7/8. And so on. The Assyrians didn’t know the biology of that, of course. But they could see it in the skin, their complexions, the hair of their offspring. All visible genetic markers.

Through this, the Samaritans clung to their identity. They were Children of Jacob. Worshippers of a GOD revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then to Moses and Aaron as YHWH (or Yahweh). The God of the Hebrews as told in the ancient stories. Victims of abuse and occupation, then othered by their brothers, the Hebrews. Those Samaritans.

Not pure-blooded, the Samaritans were considered ethnically-mixed and foreign. Even one drop of blood makes them a different race. Lesser. Other. The Hebrews felt justified in destroying the Samaritans’ Holy Mountain and site of worship, much like the Romans would destroy the occupied Hebrew’s Temple some 40 years after Jesus. The evils of prejudice are revealed within our friends and foes alike.

The Well

Then we have the well. The well is important to this story because this is the well where Jacob first sees his beloved Rachel. Where he gives her sheep water. Where she invites Jacob back to meet her father. A well of love and peace. Where a foreigner named Jacob is reunited with his people. Jacob is the displaced foreigner, living in someone else’s land in Canaan. Laban and his daughters are the insiders. The whole family is reunited in marriage.

We are supposed to see Jesus as Jacob. He, this displaced foreigner, reuniting the whole family through water, with a drink from the well.

And this nameless woman is Rachel. As Jacob is named Israel by GOD and Rachel weeps for all of their children as her own, even those born to her sister and their servants. In Jeremiah 31 GOD responds to Rachel’s tears with comfort:

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,

says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

The children will come home.

The Disciples

When the disciples return with food, Jesus teaches them about where real food comes from. That GOD tills the soil, plants the seeds, waters and keeps them, and months later, the vegetables burst through the soil, ready to be picked. He says to them that here, in the land of their half-breed enemies, GOD long ago tilled and planted and watered and kept these people. And now the disciples are called to harvest. Now, not later.

What he is trying to tell them is: Forget what your parents told you. What your teachers told you. What your leaders, like Nicodemus told you. These are GOD’s people and you are called to bring unity. The harvest is ready now.

When Jesus speaks to His disciples, He does so with the understanding that they are the xenophobic bigots they were raised to be. Their culture has lost no sleep othering their own people: brothers and sisters, born of Jacob (and his four wives). He tells them that this is their work: reconciling the separated. For this place that our Moms and Dads told us to avoid is the very place GOD has planted and we are to harvest.

This story speaks to much of our bigoted past and present. It speaks of a culture to which we are complicit. We, a nation of immigrants, rejecting today’s immigrants. Bias against people who are culturally different in any perceivable way: in race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, political affiliation, economic status, education, self-expression. Our many biases are on constant display.

And yet, if we are following Jesus, we find ourselves, always in foreign territory, miles from home, even when we walk to church. For Jesus never stays where it is safe. He goes. And we are to follow. Even if its where our parents refused to take us. Our heavenly parent is driving us. Through Samaria, the dangerous mission field, then on to Jerusalem, a much more dangerous place.

For in GOD, the Kingdom is not only united, it is unity itself. It is not 12 tribes living as different kingdoms with different boundaries. It is one. The Kingdom of GOD.

Lent, the season we’re in now, is about reconciliation and becoming aware of redemption and unity. It is about our becoming mindful of what breaks us apart and what brings us all together.

Like the twelve brothers selling one of their own into slavery, GOD brought the eleven to Joseph. So we, the privileged and comfortable are brought to a new land, our own Egypt that we might be saved. That we, the foreign occupiers might remember our displacement and how we continue to displace our brothers and sisters.

We are reminded because GOD loves us. GOD wants us. In spite of our bigotry and hatred. Or our selfishness and fear. We are called to come together. We are called to listen. Above all, we are called to love. Love from our woundedness. Love as Rachel loves all her children. Love in the place we live, even if our parents would hate to see it. Love as parents love children. As GOD loves us. All of us.

Dinner #1

My Mom requested a visit. Not really something my Mom does. But since she’s doing chemo, she’s allowed. Yes, cancer. Aggressive.

And to be fair, I offered.

So I’m visiting my Mom and Dad. Mom’s other request was that I come up and make dinner. I get to set the menu.

A lesser man would think I’m being used for my cooking. If that were true, I’m still OK with that.

This is certainly a big responsibility. And a great opportunity to try things out that I’ve never made before. I needed something quick, so I jumped on Pinterest and found a great recipe I pinned last summer for pork chops with peaches. Huge hit. Paired it with roasted brussels sprouts and carrots. Those were pretty good, though the carrots were still a bit crisp as the brussels sprouts were beginning to blacken.

Now everyone else is asleep, like I should be. But I am not quite ready to go to bed. I am still thinking. Always.

And I am thinking how thankful I am for my family. For my parents. My children. My incredible spouse. The love that we share. The memories we make. The fun we have together.

I will cherish this forever.

The Missing Word: how to not say No

My daughter wrapped me around her finger before she could grab things and twist them. Before she could even see more than two feet in front of her face. She lights up my world when she greets me at the door and when I pick her up from school.

For her, I argue with the world.

“If there is no compelling reason to say ‘No,’ why should I?”

This is in contrast to the teaching all new parents receive: that we are to learn how to say “No”. That kids are ruined if they don’t hear “No.” Like the nurse who demanded we assert our dominance over our child because “[we're] the parents.” As if we couldn’t figure that out. As if we weren’t trying to feed and protect our child. As if our use of compassion and listening to her are not proper attributes of parents. That she would be spoiled and grow up to be a horrible human being if we nurture her or that she will never have to deal with rejection.

The thing is, my kid hears No all the time. In school and at home. In the grocery store and in the car. A lot. About as often as she hears words like “the” and “you”. Certainly way more than the word she truly never hears.

The No deprived that hurts a child is when we indulge the most selfish and soul-destroying requests for happiness through consuming junk in the form of food or toys. Or indulging fantasies that even they know they have no right to suggest. Like daily trips to McDonald’s, the weekend trip to Disney World, or to her very own magical unicorn pet house for the backyard. Few people have trouble saying No to these things.

It is the other stuff that we are encouraged to say No to that I reject. Like this one.

My daughter asked me this morning if I would draw pictures with her.

Saying No to that isn’t saying No to drawing, it is saying No to the question she is really asking.

I missed you at bedtime last night, Daddy. Will you spend some time with me? Just me?

And if I were to say No, I am really saying:

You aren’t worth my time. Just like last night.

My spouse tells me that I don’t say No enough. That my Baby Girl doesn’t hear it enough from me. But I think the problem isn’t No. It is the absence of Yes.

She taught me how to draw Hello Kitty.

She taught me how to draw Hello Kitty.

ReMembering is Messy: Ash Wednesday and black thumbs

a Homily for Ash Wednesday
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Photo Credit: country_boy_shane via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: country_boy_shane via Compfight cc

Beyond Black Thumb Day

Today is Black Thumb Day.

What? Never heard of it? It is the day that priests all over the world put on nice white albs, dip their thumbs in black, flaky ashes, and smudge those ashes on everything. It begins with people’s foreheads. But each year, we forget to bring something to clean up with. We bring the ashes down from the altar to the people and we find ourselves stuck with a bowl of ashes, a black thumb, and nothing we can do about it.

I’m sure you’ve seen one of these things: the priest walking with her thumb out like this, trying in vain to preserve the whiteness of her robe. For us, it is Black Thumb Day. For the rest of the world, it is Ash Wednesday.

We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

This day is always messy. Each year I watch this amazing bit of grace play out differently, uniquely, like a snowflake. Each time I dip, then draw a cross on someone’s forehead, the little black specks drop—the extra that doesn’t stick to the skin—sort of floats, drifts down toward the bowl or speckles our clothes. I imagine a soundtrack of pristine beauty to match the delicate flakes falling.

And what remains from our intimate interaction are the specks of black on your shirt and on my alb and chasuble. These signs there to remind us—again—of dust. Of us. Of our death. Of our returning.

These are holy moments, really. We take them for granted. And we miss them.

Keeping Secrets

Each year, we gather at this time to remember. And we receive a gospel from Matthew that continues Jesus’s teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount. A preaching that challenges its hearers to witness the Kingdom of GOD and make it known in their lives. That we might become perfect: perfect in that we reflect the Christ within us. That we are Christ in the world. We embody Christ.

Each year we receive this gospel conflicted. We hear what we believe is a call to keep our faith a secret, but then we make a very public display of receiving a cross of ashes. A cross we place on top of the cross of oil we received at Baptism. A cross that smudges and messes up our clothes. A cross we’ll wipe accidentally minutes after it is placed on us. A cross we may choose to wipe off on our way out the door.

And each year, I try to decide if Jesus is talking about the same kind of secrecy that I know. Not the personal thoughts and fleeting moments of personal dialogue that I choose not to share with anyone because they are as ephemeral as a single snowflake in our winter wonderland.

But a secret. The thing that we keep that erodes relationship and causes dysfunction. The secret that prevents us from ever truly being honest with one another or gaining the kind of intimacy that Jesus teaches is essential to a true relationship with GOD. When I wouldn’t tell him what I was thinking, my best friend used to say

“Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.”

That someone, of course, is us.

No Public, No Private

When we hear that we aren’t to practice our piety to be seen, to not grimace and prove how uncomfortable we are, to keep our giving secret, we are told that it isn’t about the piety, but about GOD. We are told that it is about how right we are with GOD. That piety and generosity and giving and the very work of following Jesus isn’t about what the people around us think, it is about what GOD thinks. It isn’t about being seen, it is about being with. Our being with GOD.

This is why the church offers ashes today, in a public ritual of devotion. Because our private devotions and secret affirmations from the safety of our bedroom closets, are one thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

Secret private piety isn’t the answer to obnoxious public piety we think Jesus is teaching. Because that isn’t really any more about GOD. Our secret private piety is still about us, rather than GOD.

That is why Jesus speaks of where our hearts are. Because our private and public selves are actually the same. There is no private us and public us. There is no secret faith to set up against a private faith. There is genuine faith and there is fake faith. And of course a whole lot of immature faith in between.

If we are generous in secret, and not generous in public, then we aren’t actually generous. It is the same sin as being generous in public and selfish in private.

So our response to this is to put ashes on each other. To say those words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To re-member is to put back together, to make whole, to reunify the community. We help each other re-member so that we might become whole again.

Re-Membering Now

We may become whole and one creation again. This is what Jesus refers to when He speaks of reconciliation: of reconciling the world.

For we are the earth and to the earth we will return. To return to the earth, we must re-member that we are the earth. We are the dust that flies and the ashes that flake, the sand that the winds blow and mud moved by the river. We are the earth and everything in it. We are creation.

Tonight, let us re-member, coming together with one another and with the work of our creator: the one who made everything and called it good.

Let us begin a process of re-membering that will take 40 days as we learn of GOD’s work in our lives and our purpose in bringing the Kingdom closer. That we might allow ourselves to be formed and re-formed (re-created) by our creator, the artist who made us beautiful in an act of abundant joy.

And let us be re-membered, that this creation may be truly perfect: a perfect representation of GOD, mirroring the creative and graceful love of our divine parent and life-giver. That when one sets her eyes upon us, she may see GOD.

A creation re-membered, formed of the dust of the earth.

To Break Free From Ignorance and Pain

a Sermon for Epiphany 6A
Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Photo Credit: KariHak via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: KariHak via Compfight cc

A most unreasonable request

We’re following Jesus up the side of a mountain and we’re hearing His most famous sermon. A sermon that begins with blessings: (blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek…). A sermon that highlights all the wondrous things that GOD is doing in the world and in people around us. We are invited to be the flavor, the light, the way that the world comes to know those wondrous things.

We talked about this last week, about being those followers, that flavor, carrying that light, and revealing that way.

Now Jesus continues in an even more challenging teaching. On murder, adultery, and oath-swearing. Speaking to his followers, He says that they have been taught that anyone who murders is liable for judgment, but Jesus says that their anger at someone else makes them liable for judgment!

He says that they have been taught not to commit adultery, but Jesus says that their lust counts as adultery.

He says that they have been taught not to lie when taking an oath, but Jesus says to take no oaths at all!

This all must have seemed pretty impossible to those followers standing on the side of the mountain. Committing to Jesus. We can do humble. But we can’t get mad? If our desires get the best of us, we’re supposed to hurt ourselves?

Safest for whom?

Our response isn’t likely to be any better is it? We’re committed enough to Jesus to follow Him up the mountainside this morning—facing the cold, ignoring the siren’s call to stay in bed or get another cup of coffee, gathering for worship together—but none of us really thinks that anger is the same as murder and lust is as bad as adultery.

I worry that what happens in our brains immediately after hearing this gospel will mean that we keep missing Jesus’s point.

Recently I read about a study done about the behavior of doctors. I found this crazy and think you will too. A group of doctors were presented with the case of a woman who had exhausted nearly all of her non-surgical options. They were told there was only one drug left to try. Nearly 50% of doctors had the patient try it—exhausting all of the non-surgical options. Half tried the drug and half elected to move to surgery.

When a similar group of doctors were presented with the same case but were given 2 last drug options, rather than one, only about 25% tried either drug. Three-quarters of these doctors went straight to surgery. Having a second option meant that half as many tried it!

Doctors are smart people. Trained well. We trust them with our lives. But presented with a slightly more confusing case, they made a strange decision.

We don’t process facts and information as logically or thoughtfully as we think we do. We allow cognitive dissonance and overwhelming thoughts to cloud our judgment. So when we hear Jesus teach on sin, we, like those doctors, get stuck and choose the safest choice. The safest choice for them or us (rather than safest for the patient—it is surgery after all). Our safest choice is to actually ignore Jesus. Anger isn’t murder and I can’t control my anger, we say. I’m not a monk! And we miss the point.

The content of our character

Right before this, Jesus announced that he hasn’t come to abolish The Law, but fulfill it.

And we read Jesus’s words, not as a Hebrew, but as a Greek. Our way of thought is much more heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy than Hebrew Theology. We hear Jesus’s words about external actions and internal thoughts through dualism—as if we have an outside self and an inside self—a body and a soul—a heart and a mind. But Jesus didn’t think that way. He thought in wholeness. No external and internal, but whole.

The trouble with how The Law was being used was to focus only on actions, ignoring what causes disunity in us, in our relationships, and in our communities. Sin was being seen not from GOD’s view, but from the view of the righteous or the oppressor: in the action and not its cause.

GOD isn’t counting up the ways a person is good or bad. We don’t get three strikes before we’re out. It isn’t an opportunity for punishment. It is about reconciliation. It is about coming together.

This is why Jesus speaks to anger and lust and lying. He isn’t speaking to fleeting thoughts or feelings. It is not about irritation or attraction or imagination. It is about what happens to our relationships with others and our relationship with GOD. It is not getting upset that someone cut us off in traffic, but how we retaliate or what we do to the next driver that comes along. Do we cut them off?

As Christians, our first priority is reconciliation. It is healing the whole world. We can’t do that through clenched teeth and cold shoulders. We do it through love.

Breaking the chain

I’m reminded of an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which the more malevolent, hedonistic character of Barney invites his friends to participate in what he calls “the chain of screaming.” Marshall, one of the characters, is afraid he’ll get yelled at by his boss and Barney tells him that he needs to find someone under him and scream at them. You get screamed at by your boss, so scream at someone you have power over. It is an absurd and cruel idea from a TV show. But we actually do this. We hurt each other because we feel hurt.

Jesus tells us to stop hurting each other. Break the chain. Just because we keep the inner rage inside, doesn’t mean we aren’t sinning—or keeping it all in, either. It comes out in other ways.

The Law that Jesus came to fulfill isn’t about punishing our sin, but awakening our love. About being salt and light and thriving, not over others in the world of chaos, but as one people in the Kingdom of GOD.

It’s about love. It’s about reconciling. And it’s about seeing our friends and neighbors as the incarnate Christ, not tools for our use. That our concern isn’t our spiritual health, but each others’! Are we loving or are we using one another?

Soon we will climb down from this mountainside and return to our cars and our personal routines and we will get hurt. Someone will hurt us or offend us. Someone will do something that violates our understanding of The Law. And when that happens, may we remember that Jesus violated The Law to help us reconcile with GOD and one another. May we see the Christ in them, whether or not they see it in themselves. And may we love them for them as GOD loves us: undeserving, generous, and with abundant joy.

Manifesting in Story


Monday’s celebration of The Epiphany was unique in that it took place in the midst of a once-in-a-generation snow storm. That arctic vortex gave us sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall as we haven’t seen in the Midwest in a long time.

Feeling the cold on my face in the minutes I was out shoveling the drifted snow before the service, it reminded me of a time I now realize was the last time we had such a storm, over 20 years ago. Bundled up, taking the dog for a walk, it was so blisteringly cold, that it drove through my coat and burned my exposed face. Never have I found clothing so ineffective in stopping the cold.

I was preparing what I knew was a pretty knockout sermon–and beginning to wonder if no one would be there to work with me–to share in the homiletic exercise of exploring the text, the season, personal experience, and the call to service embedded in worship, and more importantly, to the very holiday itself.

At least thought it was a knockout. But I’m a geek for the Epiphany.

The Epiphany

The Epiphany is about GOD made manifest (as I wrote about Tuesday); not just in taking a human form at one time in our history, but in our world and in us.

For us, our understanding of GOD is swirled and made manifest in the Word and in story. Our church’s principal and major feasts are all associated with certain stories: Christmas with the birth story, Maundy Thursday with the foot washing at the Last Supper, Good Friday with the Passion and crucifixion, Easter with the empty tomb, Pentecost with the tongues of fire… 

Epiphany has two different stories. It was originally associated with the Baptism of Jesus. Rome wanted a different message, relegating the Baptism to a lesser status (which is BS, if you ask me). Replacing it strangely with the story of three astrologers showing up in Matthew. This is what I usually preach about.

The Point

The swirling storm, the three that came to join me, the Wise Men and their crazy journey from Persia, The Baptism of Our Lord, the manifestation of GOD in the world, all of it is a potent moment of faith. True faith. A faith that Jesus articulates as being about doing, rather than thinking.

Not faith that or even faith in, but faith itself. Not a doctrinal test or creed, but the act of loving and sharing and being together. Sharing in stories, in revelation, in prayer, in communion. 

Sharing in GOD’s presence with us. Then compelled to take that presence home. To our families. To our friends. To those loved ones hibernating, snuggled in under blankets before the fireplace or the TV. Taking back with them the fruits of our faith: love.

And giving it away. A manifestation of love and life itself.

GOD shared in kind words, a kiss, poetry, a flower, shoveling snow, putting the damn mailbox on its post again. Each an act of sharing. Each a part of us; a part of GOD. 

We: our stories, our lives, our faith, our community.

We manifest GOD.


The Christmas Dilemma

We have two Christmases.

We have the one about Santa, gifts, Frank Sinatra & Nat King Cole, snow, generosity, Christmas Spirit, laughter, letting other people cut in line, inviting friends over. The one in which we watch A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight and open presents in Christmas pajamas. The one in which we are packed into the car to go to Grandma’s for dinner. The one in which we dress up the house all December long for one day of festivities.

Then we have the one that comes after four weeks of waiting. The one in which we gather at night and again in the morning to worship. The one in which we mark twelve days of joyous celebration that GOD is with us–that we are not doing life alone. The one in which we gather around hymns that bring tears to our eyes and warmth in our souls. The one which culminates with the celebration of the church’s greatest and oldest feast: Epiphany.

I love them both.

It isn’t just that I am drawn to the former and should love the latter. It is that Christmas is about more than giving. And the season is about more than a day. And for the first time in my life, I actually feel as if that were true.

The Letdown

I have always felt a Christmas letdown. An embarrassing letdown, actually. The worst came more than twenty years ago.

The only thing I wanted was a Nintendo Entertainment System.  I asked for nothing else. Sitting under the tree was the biggest present I had ever seen. Wrapped, I examined it. It was about the right size, but its shape wasn’t quite right. Still, I convinced myself that it was The Precious I sought.

Tearing open the paper Christmas morning, my heart sunk at the wrappings’ contents. It was a model space shuttle.

Perhaps the greatest gift my father ever gave me as a preteen boy, the gift of a project that we could do together. And I hated it. I hated it so much. Not for what he gave me, but for what he didn’t.

We opened the box and we examined the contents, I reluctantly. Later he tried a couple of times to start building this model–a thing that any preteen boy should love–and a preteen version of my Dad would certainly have loved–but to no avail. It sat, neglected in the basement. Then one day it was gone.

Christmas lets out my most selfish, evil self. I am petty and competitive. I want to “win” by giving the best gifts–it’s as if they wrote this episode of The Michael J Fox Show for me–but I get furious when the gifts I receive aren’t as good.

I need to be reigned in. I need for us to give few gifts of small value. I don’t like the monster Christmas turns me into.

But the religious Christmas is different. It is about the insignificance of gifts and the power of GOD that comes in joy and suffering. It isn’t about happy only, but sorrow. It is the very humanity we take for granted that empowers the season of Christmas.

The idiot me gave up on a space shuttle because of what it wasn’t. The new me relishes every project I do with my father–even getting a new cell phone for Mom or setting up her iPad. Each moment with him isn’t an attempt to rectify the past but to build a future.

I am thankful for these past eleven days of Christmas–days spent worrying and celebrating and driving and watching and eating and preparing and unwrapping and giving and hoping and laughing and provoking and being. I have loved these days because they haven’t all been happy or full of joy or productive or even restful. This has been the least restful vacation I’ve ever taken. But it has been human. It has been true Christmas. And I wish this for each of you.

Merry Christmas to you, my friends, family, and dearest loved ones. I hope that the joy of living be with you into the next season and beyond.