Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Inherent Human Dignity: It's a Thing

Last week in my theology class, we talked about how easy it is for people to use and abuse one another by objectifying or de-valuing a person from the status of a living breathing human being to that of a thing that exists solely for our personal pleasure.

Obviously, this is not ok.

The theological counter to this is the idea that humans have inherent dignity.

Inherent human dignity is the idea that because all humans are created in the image of God, and that God blessed them, then even though humans (like the rest of creation) are fallen, there is still an image of God within them, even if the image is a little fuzzy.  Or maybe we see someone and it looks like they are waiting for the image of God within them to load.

And we're waiting...

The scripture passage for this idea is Genesis 1:27
"So God created humankind in [God's] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them."
Let me back up and say that in this story, the author of Genesis isn't talking about Adam and Eve, but rather God is creating all of humanity at once.

That's right.  All people in all parts of the world.  People who live in Asia and Australia, Europe and the Americas.  Africa.  All of humankind is created in God's image.

And then if we just skip down past all the blessings and being fruitful and multiplying we get to this nice little verse.

"God saw everything that [God] had made and indeed, it was very good." (1:31)

So every single person created by God?  Check.
Every single person created with something very good in them?  Check.

Why is this so hard to hear then?

Why do we as a species feel the need to treat one another as objects that entertain us?  Then we can discard them when they are no longer important?

Why do we find it so easy to victimize a group of people because they don't look like us?

Why do we find it so easy to ignore great problems in how the system works because it "doesn't really affect me"?

Why do we ignore the inherent human dignity that is supposed to be found within every single person.

Why aren't we looking for the image of God in our neighbors?

I'll repeat, we are fallen and some people make it really hard to find that image of God.  And there are certainly days when it's hard for us to find the image of God within ourselves, let alone have someone else find the image of God within us.
Still waiting...

But, shouldn't we at least make an effort?  Shouldn't we try and fight a broken system because someone else, another person made in the image of God is being abused and hurt by it?

Now, even though we still have a hard enough time with this male/female image of God thing that Genesis has in verse 27, what if we added more of these categories in there?

God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female, black and white, gay and straight, trans, rich and poor, skinny and fat, and mentally ill and physically ill, and everything in between, God created them.

Would we at least maybe think twice before we start mistreating someone else?

I hope so.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


 This sermon was preached at Christ Chapel on the campus of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary on November 4th, 2014.  The text for the sermon was Acts 13:1-12.

Imagine with me, if you will, what it must have been like in that one particular worship service in Antioch that day.  Picture around the table Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manean, and Saul, along with the others that have gathered for prayer and to worship the Lord.  Imagine with me what it might have smelled like in that early house church.  Was the stench of dirt and sweat hanging off of these men and women who are gathered overpowering?  Was it possible to smell the cooking meals of houses around them - roasting meat and baking bread?    Imagine with me what their leitourgia might have looked like.  Were the homeless and poor gathered in the house with them?  Were these women and men that have gathered to fast tempted by the smells of meals around them?  Imagine with me their reaction to the Holy Spirit calling, no, electing Saul and Barnabas for a mission.  Were they surprised to hear the Spirit’s voice?  Or did they accept the voice of the Spirit readily and eager to assist in the sending of Saul and Barnabas?
This service which begins Saul and Barnabas’ mission to the larger world is perhaps extra-ordinary in that there was nothing going on in this house that had not happened before and has not happened many times since then.  The people of God are gathered around, doing the work of the people, praying to God.  It is in this moment of worship and service that the Spirit speaks, electing these two men to go out into the world and bring more and more people into the kingdom of God.
Isn’t that what God’s election process is all about?  God choosing people to work to bring  about the kingdom? God calling them to serve others?  God inviting them to begin a long and perilous journey which ultimately will lead to persecution?  God working through them to reveal the glory of God?  God’s election process has always been about choosing those the world thinks are “unqualified” and using them to redeem the world (if only in bits and pieces).
It’s easy to forget that, I think especially when over the past several weeks we have been inundated with ads trying to tell us which candidate is better than all the others.  With those up for election trying to tell us about their qualifications, their track records, their reasons why they will do the best for us, the voter.  For these candidates, election isn’t about being chosen by God to humble themselves and follow where the Spirit is going to lead them.  Instead, they understand election to mean the gaining of power for personal gain and profit - or perhaps I’m just being a little too cynical of our government after binge watching Netflix’ House of Cards this past weekend.  
However, we forget that election isn’t actually about the individual’s choice in the matter.  No where in scripture does God ask the opinion of the women and men if they wanted to be elected.   Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, David, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ruth, Mary, Peter, Paul, John, Lydia, the list goes on throughout scripture and history, these women and men are elected by God to live into the kingdom.  And none of them have it easy.  And yet, these people answer the call, carrying out the roles that God has elected them to, not because it will lead to a comfortable life, but because they know that God’s election is about more than them; God’s election of an individual or a group of people is for the sake of the whole world.
I think it’s also easy to forget that we are elected by God too.  Not just those of us who are training to be rostered clergy, but every single Christian.  We are all elected in our baptisms to be a means through which God works in the world.  We are just one more group of people in a long tradition of “unqualified” leaders through whom God is redeeming the world.  We are the one of the means by which God has chosen to reveal Godself to the world.  
God has picked us, as a people, and invites us to follow where God is calling.  And perhaps it won’t ever look like blinding a magician and false prophet in order to win converts - however tempting that might seem at times.  But perhaps it might look like that service at the beginning of the passage from Acts.
Imagine with me, if you will, a group gathered throughout a chapel, a group filled with teachers, staff, and students.  They are hungry, counting down the minutes until it is time for lunch.  Perhaps you can hear a stomach or two rumbling.  The air in the room is cool, has a slightly musty stony smell.  The floor is cold to the touch. The lighting is neither dark nor bright.  They have spent time lifting up their voices in song and prayer.  They take some time in silence, opening themselves up to God’s call, eager to hear where God is inviting them to go.  Waiting for the Spirit to whisper in the midst of their own leitourgia, “Set this one aside, lay hands on her, send her out into the world, I have elected her.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Prayer! What is it good for?

This is the second post on Philippians 4:1-9.  The first post can be found here.  Even though it started out as trying to write the sermon that I needed to hear on a certain Sunday, this post is more of a meditation on prayer.  
I have a confession to make.  I don't pray as much as it perhaps should "behoove" a young seminarian.

It just doesn't happen.  Half of the time I don't have bother making excuses for why I don't pray.  You know, excuses like "I'm too busy to pray."  None of that mental justification.  I just straight up am not good about consciously praying like I ought to be.  (Or maybe there's no "ought?"  Do I need to compare my prayer life to others?  That sounds like a post for another day.)

Anyhow.  I just don't do it.  For the longest time I didn't think there was any particular reason or need for me to offer up prayer because 

  1. I shouldn't be asking God for anything for myself,
  2. God knows that there are lots of terrible things happening in the world and God is already on fixing those things.  (I have faith that God is, anyhow, some days I don't see it, but again another blog post for another day.)
  3. The Holy Spirit is already praying for me as Paul writes in Romans 8:26 "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."
All of these very reasonable (if not necessarily true) statements worked together to create a space in my head that wasn't very welcoming towards the idea of conscious petitionary prayer.
You know, that idea that if we ask God for something, God will make it happen.  Petitionary prayer.  Like we can demand things of the Almighty Creator of the Universe, The Word Made Flesh, and The Spirit that Breathes New Life.

Last time someone tried that, I believe the answer was, "Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?" (Love God's portrayal in Job, so much snark.)

And then even when we do feel like we can ask something of God, how do we know that we will get the answer that we want or maybe even expect?

There's a great little story that a professor of mine (Dr. Daniel M. Bell Jr.) loves to tell regarding how many people view petitionary prayer that I'm going to hijack for a while.

There was a man who lived in a modest home in a small coastal town.  And to that town's dismay, a hurricane was about to roll through and flood most of the town.  When the man first heard about the hurricane, he said a quick prayer to God asking for God to save him.  Shortly after he finished praying, the man turned on his television and saw that the government was calling for an evacuation.  The man turned off his tv in disgust, saying to himself that God will save me.  Later that day the man went outside to get his mail when his neighbors noticed that he was still home.  One of the women called out to him, "Why don't you ride with us?  We can all get to safety later.  There's plenty of room for you in our car."  The man smiled, and then called back a little cooly, "I'm not worried, I've been praying for God to save me.  I know God will."  The woman shook her head, but unable to force him to come with her and her family, she took off.  Then the rains started.  The forecasters' predictions came close to describing the ferocity of the storm.  Soon the man was forced to sit on his roof.  While there, he saw a man on a rowboat come by.  The man in the boat called out to him, "Sir, I've got room in my boat, let me get you to safety." Our hero on his roof called back, confidently, "I'm okay, God will save me."  Again, the rowboat captain tried and tried to get the man to swim over to the boat, but quickly gave up, disgusted with the foolishness he'd just witnessed on the roof.  Unfortunately for our hero, shortly after the rowboat passed out of sight, his house collapsed and he drowned.  When given the opportunity to have words with God, the man had several.  The first question he asked was, "God why didn't you deliver me from that hurricane?  I prayed about it!"  God's response?  "I told you to leave through the government.  When that didn't work, I had your neighbor try to deliver you.  And even when you turned that down, I tried sending a rowboat.  Why didn't you take any of the help I offered?"

Now you might chuckle softly to yourselves, but that's how many Christians (myself included) view petitionary prayer.  That we ask for something and that God is just going to make it happen.  And then when we don't get the answer we expect, we begin to ignore the rowboats that cross our paths.

Now I can't quite remember which theologian said (and because this is a blog post and not a thesis or approval essay, it doesn't really matter), "the value of petitionary prayer is that it helps us see what our desires are and how foolish they are when we lift them up to God."

And while this seems counter to the message that Jesus lifts up in Matthew (and Mark and Luke), that if we "ask and it shall be given," there does seem to be a grain of truth to that.  When I really want a new car and I pray about it, I am more aware of just how silly it seems for me to be asking for that.  I mean, the car I have now works just fine, right?

But that's only a fraction of the things we pray for.

It's certainly not foolish to pray for God to end world hunger or for God to heal a sick child.  Or any number of incredibly wonderful things that we do and should pray for and over.

So what about those altruistic prayers?  What do we do about them?

And what about our needs?  I mean, I think it is a good idea for us to pray over certain things in our lives.  Things like whether to move, whether to start or end a relationship, conflicts that come up at work, how to deal with grief, stressful situations, etc.  The list of personal things that I could and should pray for goes on and on and on...

Leaving me (and probably not just me) with the question, "What's the point of prayer?" Or perhaps, "Why pray?"

What happens in prayer that doesn't happen when we just run through the list of things that are currently on our mind (which was a way that I prayed for a while, I must confess).

I think what happens in prayer that makes it unique is that it's a conversation with God.

You heard me.  Prayer is dialogue with God.

No, I don't mean that every time you pray God is going to answer you back and you can have the nice back and forth conversations that you see with Abraham.  Or Jonah.  Or Elijah.  Or whomever.

But I do think that when we pray we have to "open" ourselves up to the notion that God is present and that God has a will for our lives that at times we can only catch glimpses of.

Prayer is an opportunity for us to lift up something going on in our lives and allow ourselves to open up to where God is calling us to be.

To say, "I don't know where you want me to go, God, but I'm willing to listen."

This opening ourselves up is going to be a messy process.  Just like every other meaningful relationship.

And God isn't always going to give us a straight answer either.  Our answers are going to come in the form of rowboats or little things that we might come across in our daily life.
In our defense, it doesn't seem much safer to hop in the rowboat during the storm.

Opening ourselves up to God's answer means that we need to start paying attention to so many things in our day to day lives that we just walk past because we're "too busy."

It means being able to entertain the possibility that certain words or phrases that catch our eyes are going to contain a glimpse of where we are being called to go.

This does NOT mean, however, that every little sign or phrase that we see is going to contain God's will for our lives.

Instead, the other piece of prayer that I think we forget is that we need to be in conversation with others about this as well.  That we look to our communities and talk about what we are praying for (something that requires a degree of honesty and trust, shocking!) and talk through these phrases and signs that we see.

I love the 2014 Noah because Noah prays and prays for clarification and God doesn't just answer from the heavens.  Instead Noah sees signs that indicate what he thinks God is trying to tell him, but his family is telling him something different.  Noah's wife is the one who sees what the signs mean, but because Noah isn't open to hearing a different opinion, he misses the point.

How often is that how we work?  That we pray for something, see an answer that we want to hear, and then move on?

What if, instead of that, we opened ourselves up to what the community is trying to tell us on God's behalf?  What if we were open to God's presence in our day to day lives?

What if we opened our ears and started listening to God's half of the conversation?

Sorry for the longer post, but this is a kind of complex idea that I'm still working through.  Hopefully the next one will be a little shorter.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What I Wish I Had Heard: A Lament

One of the beautiful things about the Revised Common Lectionary is that with a few exceptions, most mainline Protestant churches use the same texts as the basis for the sermon.

While this is almost always a good thing, it can, on occasion, cause a Sunday like this morning where there are no really "easy Good News" texts except for Psalm 23.  And, to my pastor's credit, there are almost no good ways to tackle the passage from Matthew that was proclaimed as the "Gospel" for this Sunday.

In case you missed church this morning or perhaps were at a church that (probably considers themselves to be lucky because it) doesn't use the Revised Common Lectionary, the text is Matthew 22:1-14.  Go on, read it for yourselves really quickly.  I'll wait.

No seriously, go read it.

Ok?  Read it?  Not exactly a text that screams "Here is the Good News of the Word of God!"  

Not that the passage from Isaiah  or Philippians are much easier.  And of course the 23rd Psalm is kind of easy to preach.  So, I'm sure that your pastor did what mine did this morning and decided to tackle this Matthew text head on.  And to my nameless pastor's credit, he did a pretty good job with it. (Much better than some of the other pastors I heard about this morning, anyhow.)  However, that was not the sermon I needed to hear.

All of this is a precursor to the fact that I think I really needed to hear a sermon on this Philippians text this morning.  And because I didn't get one, I decided to write through what I did need.  Deal with it.

The Philippians text (in case you missed it) is 4:1-9.  And it follows.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Just a little academic stuff to note before we dive into why I think this was the text that I needed to hear preached this morning.

  1. How cool is it that Paul is talks about Euodia and Syntyche by name in this passage?  Yes, he's telling them to get along and for the community to help them with that, but still.  Women leaders in the ancient church?  Kind of a big deal.  You could probably have a sermon all about that in and of itself, but that's not what I needed to hear.  Sorry.  Maybe in another 3 years we can revisit this conversation.
  2. This is the conclusion to one of Paul's great letters.  Yes, this is probably actually Paul.  No, that doesn't actually matter cause it made it into the canon.  But this is basically Paul's opportunity to sum up everything that he's said in the previous four chapters.  You know, to make sure they actually got it.
  3. There are other notable things that Christian A. Eberhart wrote about in his Working Preacher article for this text, but you can read that for yourself here.  Really, you can, it's pretty approachable language.  But I'd rather you read the rest of my thoughts first.  Cause even though he says some profound stuff, that's not what I (or perhaps many people) needed to hear this morning.

 Ok.  That's out of the way.  Good.

Now I'm sure you're thinking, "Jared, that's a lot of cool stuff.  And none of that is what you needed to hear?  Then what was it that you needed this morning from Philippians?"

I'm glad you asked.

This morning (and the past couple of days while I was helping my roommate ponder his sermon for this morning) I kept coming back to a few key words that Paul repeats.   Prayer (with thanksgiving).  Peace.




In all things be in pray with thanksgiving.  In all things you will have peace.

To be fair, I did just finish up an incredibly stressful week at school but I can promise you in those things there were not prayers of thanksgiving and there certainly was not peace.

It's enough to say, "What the hell Paul?"

And it's not like Paul hasn't had his share of stressful weeks.  He's been imprisoned, stoned, put on trial, defended his dissertation on including Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, gone to a church council meeting, written several letters, travelled, oh, and he's been building tents throughout all of this.  Paul knows what it's like to be stressed and he still is writing to pray with thanksgiving and to know that the peace of Christ will be present.

I think we need to rethink some of these pieces in order to understand this.  And by we, I mean me (with your help).

And to think all of those preachers this morning thought the Matthew text was the hard one to read.

Which also means that in the coming week, I'll be continuing to let Paul's ideas of prayer and peace percolate (on top of preparing another sermon and working on a group project, but no big deal) and will be posting a sermon in parts.

If you did preach on this text or heard a good sermon on it, please feel free to share that message in the comments (bonus points if you can do it in 140 characters or less).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"I'm only human..."

Part of the summer lectionary at Nativity has included an emphasis on 1 John.  An incredibly complex and sometimes hard to read (because it is condemning) epistle that is tied to the Johanine community that produced the Gospel of John that is so familiar on Palm Sunday and the weeks following Easter.

In 1 John, there is a lot of talk about what it means to be human.  

Does it mean to be a sinner?  To be in the dark and completely depraved?  To continually choose what is good for ourselves over and above what is good for the larger community?

Or does it mean to be a saint?  To live in the light?  To be forgiven of all sins?  To be able to choose what is good for all instead of what is good for one?

In my sermon from July 6th, I posited that it was actually both.  That we are, to quote Martin Luther, simul ustus et pecator, that is, that we are simmultaneously saint and sinner.  

I even have a tattoo to remind ourselves of this very fact.  

But, in a book that I had to read for my Theology class in the Spring of 2013 for Dan Bell, the author posited meant that to be truly human was to be completely saint.  That the reason Jesus was fully human was because he was fully in relationship with God.  And that by his incarnation, we understand what it means to be human.  

This means that human nature isn't greedy or selfish.  It would mean that we no longer get to use the excuse "I'm only human, when we make a mistake."  Because to be human means to have the capactity for good and altruism.  

It also means that there are no saints, in the sense that we have come to understand them.  Instead, they are just people who are living into their humanity - the humanity that is made possible through the Incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  

That means, they are, at their core, people like you and me.  People who were born into this world, but desired something better.  And instead of choking up their failings to "human nature," they realized that they had the capacity to do better.  

They had the capactiy to do good.

We have the capactiy to good.  

And we don't really have a good reason as to why we continue to make choices that are terrible for us.  We can't keep blaming it on "human nature" because in the Incarnation, we see that human nature is actually altruistic and desires to sacrifice itself.

Instead, we continue to make terrible choice after terrible choice.  We continue to blame our mistakes on something else.  We continue to give ourselves an out for not doing better.

But we can.  We are freed in baptism to become truly human. 

And when we are truly human, we also know what it means to abide with God (to use the Johanine community's favorite verb).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Losing Yourself

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The texts for the sermon are Philippians 2:1-13 and Luke 6:27-31.

Before you get too comfortable, I want you to grab a pencil and your bulletins, and jot down some things that make up your definition of “you.”  The parts of you that are foundational to your identity.  Go ahead, write them down -- because we’re going to come back to this, but it’ll take us a few minutes to get there.

As you’re thinking and writing, I want to share this parable from Peter Rollins with you that I came across while preparing for this week’s sermon:

IN THE CENTER OF A ONCE-GREAT CITY THERE STOOD A MAGNIFICENT CATHEDRAL that was cared for by a kindly old priest who spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of the priest’s tireless work, the cathedral was known throughout the land as a true sanctuary. The priest welcomed all who came to his door and gave completely without prejudice or restraint. Each stranger was, to the priest, a neighbor in need and thus the incoming of Christ. His hospitality was famous and his heart was known to be pure. No one could steal from this old man, for he considered no possession his own, and while thieves sometimes left that place with items pillaged from the sanctuary, the priest never grew concerned: he had given everything to God and knew that these people needed such items more than the church did. Early one evening in the middle of winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a loud and ominous knock on the cathedral door. The priest quickly got to his feet and went to the entrance, as he knew it was a terrible night and reasoned that his visitor might be in need of shelter. Upon opening the door he was surprised to find a terrifying demon towering over him with large dead eyes and rotting flesh. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid this hideous demon welcome and beckoned him into the church. The evil demon stooped down and stepped across the threshold, spitting venom onto the tiled floor as he went. In full view of the priest, the demon proceeded to tear down the various icons that adorned the walls and rip the fine linens that hung around the sanctuary, while screaming blasphemy and curses. During this time the priest knelt silently on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the night. “Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going now?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you?” spat the demon. “I too am tired and in need of a place to lay my head.” “Why, of course,” replied the priest. “Come, and I will prepare a meal.” On returning to his house, the priest prepared some food while the evil demon mocked the priest and broke the various religious artifacts that adorned his humble dwelling. The demon then ate the meal that was provided and afterward turned his attention to the priest, “Old man, you welcomed me first into your church and then into your house. I have one more request for you: will you now welcome me into your heart?” “Why, of course,” said the priest, “what I have is yours and what I am is yours.” This heartfelt response brought the demon to a standstill, for by giving everything the priest had retained the very thing that the demon sought to take. For the demon was unable to rob him of his kindness and his hospitality, his love and his compassion. And so the great demon left in defeat, never to return. What happened to that demon after this meeting with the elderly priest is anyone’s guess. Some say that although he left that place empty-handed he received more than he could ever have imagined. And the priest? He simply ascended his stairs, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, all the time wondering what guise his Christ would take next. - Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic

And as I was reading this parable, and reading this text, I wondered if I would be able to live as this priest lived.  To be open and willing to serve all that came to my door that even in the midst of being taken advantage of, being abused, and even at the risk of letting evil into my heart.  Would I be as kind and hospitable as the priest in this story?  Would I be able to empty myself of the things that I hold near and dear to my identity and allow Christ’s love and grace to flow through me?  

And then I wondered what are those things that I hold near and dear to my identity?  Is it my name?  My job?  My gender?  My relationships?  What were those things that you hold near and dear to your identity -- what did you put on your list?

Does your list read something along the lines of: I’m Jared, a 25 year old male vicar, who is the first born son, and an older brother.  I’m a student and a teacher.  I am a bookworm, tv junkie, and movie buff.  I’m a best friend.  I own a dog, and am comfortably middle class.  I’m an American of Norwegian descent.  I’m a little ADD and a little OCD.   I’m a Lutheran.  

All of these are ways that I identify myself.  All of these are things that I hold near and dear to my heart.  All of these things are things I would be terrified to give up.  I hold on to these things to measure my success and place in the world.  They are how I know where I stand compared to other people.  

Except, Paul calls me, and us, to emulate Christ in all things, to be in the same mind as Christ.  To be of the same love as Christ.  To:
“empty ourselves,
                    take the form of a slave,
humble ourselves
                    and become obedient to the point of death”

That’s terrifying.  To empty ourselves of all of these pieces of our identity.  To let go of the ways that we measure success.  To stand back and let God work in our lives.  To live as the priest lived in the parable I told at the beginning did, giving away everything, holding on to nothing.  Not being afraid, even in the presence of evil and threat of harm.  To have nothing inside his heart but love and grace and forgiveness and joy. To have so much love to be willing “go the extra mile” so to speak.  To have so much forgiveness that we can turn the other cheek.  To have so much grace, that everything we do is a reflection of what God does for us.  

I know it sounds impossible.  It sounds like I (and Paul and Jesus) are talking about something that is ideal, but not realistic.  I mean, what happens when we offer grace?  We get taken advantage of, right?  Or our identities get in the way.  I can’t do this, because of x, y, or z.  I know this, because I do it all the time.  I think that I’m “too busy” to go out and help someone build a house.  Or that I’m “too afraid” for my life to help the homeless person with the cardboard sign because he might be crazy.  Or whatever...we all have our reasons, our identities that we cling so tightly to, and impact how we are able to love one another.  

And still, Paul - who wasn’t exactly the most charitable person at times, writes again and again that we need to emulate Christ.  He even writes at one point that we “lose our identities” in the waters of Baptism.  That we aren’t “ Jew nor Greek” - national identities, “slave or free” - occupational identities, or “male and female” - that one’s a little obvious. That these incredibly powerful cultural, occupational, and gender identities are no longer the things that define us.  That we can let them go, we empty ourselves of them because they get in the way of the work of God flowing through us.  That instead, we are children of God.  

And we see this happen.  We’ve seen people who have let go of their identities to bring love and grace to those they meet.  They aren’t just found in parables, like the one I just read from Peter Rollins.  Instead they are people like Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope Francis. They are the nurses who work at free clinics, the teachers who stay after school to tutor those who struggle, the veterans who worked to build relationships with those who differ from us, the construction workers who dedicate their time to Habitat for Humanity, the people who would rather go unnamed and unrecognized as they offer up their gifts and service.  We all know these people.  These women and men who emptied themselves of their identities and allowed themselves to be vessels of God’s grace.  Women and men, who truly were of the same mind as Christ.  Who weren’t afraid of anything to live into God’s kingdom.  And more importantly, they were just ordinary women and men.

Women and men, like you and me.  They just emptied themselves of their identities and became instruments of God’s grace.  And in the emptying, the humility, the service, the love, the being taken advantage of, the threat of death, they lifted up Christ.  They showed all the world how the power of sin was broken and that God’s kingdom is with us here and now.  Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

An Engagement with Peter Rollins

I'm currently working my way through Peter Rollins' The Orthodox Heretic, and it's given me pause to think about my own privilege and my own relationship with the subversive message that is Christianity.  Which is to say that I'll probably be wrestling with a lot of these parables on here.

So you should go out and buy the book.

No seriously...I'll wait.  It's that good.

Looks like this

Got it?
Ok.  Good.

The first parable is a play on that well known bumper sticker, "If Christianity was a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

This one

And, true to form, Rollins twists this bumper sticker on its head.

The judge (and the court) look through footage of the one convicted (that's us, by the way) and see what we would consider evidence: reading scripture, speaking in church, praying before meals, etc...

And then...after all of this "evidence" the judge pronounces us "not guilty."

And of course, we as the one on trial demand to know what's going on.  We're left saying, "wait, what?"

The response from the judge is that we haven't done enough to really fight the system, that we aren't actually bothering anybody.  Just making ourselves feel good.

And at the end of the parable, I'm left going...wait, what?

Is that all I'm doing?

Am I just working within a system to keep the status quo alive?
Am I just making myself feel good?
Am I thorn in the side of an unjust system?

What am I doing?

I think I like to tell myself that I'm the latter, but I have a sneaking suspicion it's actually one of the first two.

And then I wonder...
How do I become the thorn in the side of an unjust system?

Is it by preaching sermons that challenge the status quo?
Is it by preaching sermons that affirm the place of doubt in religion?
Refusing to give in to violence?
Advocating for others to be treated equally regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation?
Living as if death isn't the defining force in the world?
Fighting to take care of the earth, and all that is in it?
Having a conversation with an ex-drug addict at the YMCA?
Losing my own ego, so that I can be fully present with someone else?
Ignoring the "rules" of retribution and recompense?
Offering forgiveness, not just seven times, but seventy times seven?

If yes, then those are all incredibly easy things to say.
But when I try to live them out, I find myself going, "wait, what?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dissonant Chords

During the Festival of Homiletics, Otis Moss III gave a lecture titled "Preaching the Prophetic Blues in the Post-Modern World."  This is my brief reflection on his lecture.

"Blues is a motif to deal with life in a world that refuses to recognize tragedy." - Otis Moss III

"Blues looks tragedy in the face, and refuses to give in to despair." - Otis Moss III

These two sentences about the blues embrace the message of the Gospel.

In fact, if we were to switch blues with "The Gospel" we would have two equally important and powerful statements.

"The Gospel is a motif to deal with life in a world that refuses to recognize tragedy."
"The Gospel looks tragedy in the face, and refuses to give in to despair."

What incredibly powerful and liberating sentences.  The Gospel embraces the terribleness of the world and refuses to give in to it.

The Gospel refuses to let death have the final say, but the Gospel does not deny the reality of tragedy.  The Gospel is grounded in Good Friday and Holy Saturday in all things.  God embraces the pain of the cross, completely.

Jesus doesn't abandon the pain and suffering of the cross - even though he had the power to remove himself from the cross at any point.

Instead, Jesus opens himself up to the horror of the cross.

Jesus deals with life in a world that refuses to recognize tragedy.  Jesus looks tragedy in the face.

Jesus embraces the dissonance of the world - the pain, the suffering, the horror and shows us the terrible beauty of God that is still present in the midst of it all.

Isn't that why the blues are so effective?

They embrace the dissonance of the way the world is - in their very chords, and then have lyrics that continue to say "this is not the end."

Are we doing this?

Are we naming the pains and fears?  The sufferings?  Are we able to look them in the face and say, "You are not how the world is supposed to be."

Can we take these dissonant chords that we find in life and see that there is deep beauty in spite of, or perhaps because of, them?

Can we preach the blues?  Or perhaps, we should allow the blues to preach to us?

Treasure in Clay Jars

This morning at the Festival of Homiletics, Dr. Walter Brueggemann preached a sermon about treasure and clay jars.  Specifically the ways in which we confuse our treasure with the clay jars that hold them.

For some reason this seems painfully obvious.

Is it painful because it's true?

Do we confuse our churches for the Gospel that is preached there?
Do we confuse the number of people in our pews for the size of the Body of Christ?

Or perhaps, the better question is why are we doing these things?

Why are these clay jars, fragile vessels that are meant to be broken and smashed to let the contents flow freely, so protected?

Why are we afraid to be broken in order for true healing to occur?

It's not because we're afraid of death, is it?

We proclaim loudly every Sunday that Christ has destroyed death, that there is no final separation between us and God, that even in the midst of tragedy there is still beauty and grace and love - because God is in those moments.

We profess it with the words of the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds. Christ died to destroy death.
We hear it all over the Epistles of Paul.
We sing it loudly, using some of my favorite Easter hymns (among others)

And yet, even in the light of Easter change is still painful and scary.

How do we embrace the fear of change and let it go?
How do we stare this fear and death in the face, and in spite of that still live as God invites us to live?

And that living invitation looks like:

Loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Feeding the hungry.
Caring for the sick.
Dining with outcasts.

We are invited to live in God's kingdom, where death has no power.

And that is the treasure.  Everything else is just a clay jar.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Disillusioned by the Light of the Cross

So in my last post, I talked about what a gift disillusionment can be.  That it's really only in the disappointment we experience from one another, that we are truly able to see each other - as we are.

I think it's time we start doing the same thing for God. 

Can we let God disappoint us?
Can we let God show up and say "I'm not who you think I am."

Doesn't this happen time and time again in scriptures?

God chooses the dishonest brother, Jacob, and uses him to create a great people.
God chooses Moses - a murderer, and someone who was raised as an Egyptian to deliver the people out of slavery.
God chooses Rahab.
God chooses Solomon (not David's rightful heir, but instead a child of Bathsheba).
God chooses shepherds to be prophets.
God chooses a virgin to bear Christ.

And when God becomes flesh, Jesus does nothing but let people down who place tons of expectations on him.

He comes to Jerusalem as a king, and is killed.

That's not very God-like is it?

God is so opposed to people coming up with ideas about them, that he refuses to give them a name past "I am who I am."

Basically God is telling the people, "Don't put a label on me, cause I'm not going to live into that label.  I'm bigger than that."

And even though God tells us that, we are still really good at putting labels on God.

The Israelites created a golden calf to represent the God that delivered them out of Egypt.
The Israelites turn sacrifice into the only way to worship God.
The Pharisees turn following the Torah as the only way to live as God wants us to live.

We turn good fortune or coincidence into God's blessing.
We turn tragedy into God's punishment.

We spend our time chasing a God that will make us rich (the US dollar).
We spend our money creating God's kingdom on earth (what that looks like depends on if you're a Republican or a Democrat)

We create a God who loves those whom it easy for us to love.
We create a God who hates those whom are different from us.

And then I see Jesus on the cross, and I doubt the whole system.

Why would this God whom I've created in my image willing die because of sin?

And we can try and explain it away, by using facing words like penal substitution or atonement theory that simply fits into the system I'm living in to. (That'll be another blog post, I'm sure)

Or is there a better, more excellent way?

What if God on the cross is supposed to throw this image of God into doubt and turmoil?
What if I'm supposed to be thinking that things don't add up?
What if I'm supposed to be disillusioned in the light of the cross?

That God is telling me (and the rest of the world) that our view of God isn't what we thought it was.

God shows up and tells us that there's more to God than we thought.
God tells us again and again, that God is bigger than that.

That on the cross, all of my ideas about God should be thrown into question.

My doubts and questions about the system?  They are the questions of a vengeful God.  They are doubts about a God who wants to see pain and suffering.  

My doubts keep me from turning God into another golden calf.
My disillusionment is the very thing that allows me to see God more clearly.

They tell me that God isn't what I thought. 
Instead God is love.

God is sacrificial love that transforms all of creation, bringing all things into a renewed relationship with the very creator of the universe.
That's something that I don't need to understand or grasp to understand it's a gift.  
That's something that I don't need to understand or grasp to know that it means I can't live the same way I was living.
That's something that I don't need to understand or grasp to know that I am loved, and am freed to love.

That's something that I don't need to understand or grasp to know that it's something I can keep coming back to, time and time again.

And each time, I might bring different ideas about God with me to the cross, and each time Jesus will be there reminding me about the love God has for me, and for all people, and for all time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Gift of Disillusionment

I've been reading a lot of Peter Rollins lately, and have been thinking about something that he talks about quite a lot - the gift of disillusionment.

Now, as one who experiences disillusionment more often than I would like (hazards of being a dreamer, I guess), it's really hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that disillusionment can be a gift.  Especially because so often it's disappointing and sometimes can even be painful.

Nobody likes to have their hopes and expectations crushed.  Nobody likes to have their ideas about their friends shattered.  Nobody likes being "let down."

There's a How I Met Your Mother episode where each of the gang's flaws are pointed out to them.   The episode is Spoiler Alert from Season 3.  Each time a flaw is revealed, we hear the sound of glass shattering.  It almost breaks up the group, because everyone chose to ignore what would irk them most about their friends.

Lily loudly crunching on carrots

And yet, it's only when the glass is shattered - both on the show and in our own lives - that we have an idea of who the other person is.  Instead of truly knowing one another, we create ideas of who the other person should be.

So, of course, instead of loving the other person for who they are, we love our idea of the person we think they are.

This happens all the time, and most of the time our ideas about the other person aren't terribly far off.  We like the same music they like or have the same taste in movies or books.  They think pretty similarly to how we think.  They have similar goals and aspirations.  The list goes on and on.

And our assumptions are helpful - to a point.  They give us places to go in conversation that help us build a relationship with one another.  They help create a sense of community and belonging.

The problem is that when are assumptions hold the relationship or community together.  In these cases our relationships aren't honest.  Our community isn't being faithful to its people.  We love our idea of the other person or our community too much to see them for who (and whose) they are.

In these cases, having our ideas about the other person are necessary.  We need disillusionment (and it's pain) to help us see more clearly.  Our disillusionment actually brings to light a more honest look at the other person.

In other words, the pain of disillusionment is actually a gift.  A gift because we now see the person or community we love on their own terms.  It's an opportunity to enter into a new relationship with the person and accept them not just in spite of, but perhaps because of the ways that they are different from us.

To enter into a relationship that challenges us and helps us to grow.

To enter into real community.

To truly love the person and not just love an extension of our self.

That sounds like a really powerful gift to me.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ain't it a Shame

Sermon from Sunday March 23, 2014.  This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity.  The text for the sermon is John 18:12-27.

I think it’s all too easy for us to give Peter a hard time in this text.  We listen to these women and men question his association with Jesus, and hear Peter’s denial of it, and we think…”really, you’re going to just straight up deny that you traveled with him? Really?”  And then it’s easy for us to harshly judge Peter.  To assume that if we were in his position we would stand up for Jesus right there in the courtyard.  That even if we knew that it meant that we too would be arrested and possibly killed, we would stand with Jesus to the end.  
And yet, it’s not that easy after all.  Perhaps there is more going on here in Peter’s relationship with these people that we can’t see on the surface.  Perhaps we need to dig a little deeper this morning.
Perhaps Peter isn’t at fault for his responses to these questions.  Maybe the world has “conspired against him” so to speak, so that Peter is being forced to answer negatively.  It’s not even that peer pressure we are all so familiar with, but it is something close.
If we take a minute and think back to our childhoods for a minute - for some of that won’t take as long as others...and we think about a time one of our parents tries to get us to do something.  I can think of a couple times when I would try and leave the kitchen before I had cleared my place at the table.  Instead of being asked to pick up my plate and silverware, I would sometimes get a question.  A question that goes, and perhaps many of you have heard it asked or asked it yourselves, “You’re not going to leave those there, are you?”  Or maybe with a messy room, “you’re not going to leave those Legos out are you?”
Well..of course I was going to leave my dishes on the table.  And of course I was going to leave the Legos out.  But the question is asked in such a way that I have no other answer than the one I was given in the question.  “No mom, I’ll clear my place.”  “Of course not dad, I’ll pick them up right away.”  Even though in my heart of hearts, I wanted to answer differently, I was trapped by the question and didn’t have a choice.
And I think that’s what happens to Peter this morning.  The phrasing of these questions is done in such a way that Peter can only answer in the negative.  “You aren’t one of *them* are you?”  Peter has been trapped.  He feels like he doesn’t have a choice.  He has to go along with the crowd’s opinion.  He is trapped by a language that should allow him to freely answer.  Even if he wanted to affirm his status as Jesus’ disciple, and I think he just might have wanted to do that very thing, he was forced into denying something very real about his identity.  
How many times do these similar things happen to us in our own lives?  In my experience, they happen more often than we like to think.  Such as when you’re in a conversation with friends about Clemson’s chances in the upcoming game, and all of a sudden they are looking at you to make sure that you root for Clemson and heaven help you if you say any other ACC team, or worse USC.  So, despite your own loyalty to Duke, you say, “Of course.  Go Tigers!”  
Or perhaps someone is talking about universal healthcare.  And they’ve torn everything about the new policies up one side and down the other.  And all of a sudden you’re being asked if you agree with their arguments and think the whole idea is terrible.  And you’re trapped into agreeing even though you think healthcare is actually a pretty good thing for everyone to have.
And when we feel the need to tell these “little white lies” that deny our identity we see one more glimpse of the brokenness of the world in sin.  We feel deeply that we are disconnected from one another.  We feel that we have to hide bits and pieces of ourselves.  And we feel like we aren’t going to be accepted by the world for being anything but normal - and nevermind that there’s no such thing as normal.
And yet, even the sin that permeates so much of how we talk, act, and live in our relationships with one another, that’s not what makes the problem worse.  Instead it’s the feeling of shame that comes with sin that causes the most damage.  The sense that we now have to hide our sins and brokenness - even if it’s a small one such as lying about cheering for Clemson.  We feel that we now have to be alone in our sins.  We can’t tell anyone that we struggle with sins - and nevermind that everyone struggles with some sins.
We want to sit alone and be left by ourselves - much like those who feel depressed feel.  For one of the major symptoms for many types of depression is feeling isolated and alone.  Feeling disconnected and feeling like you have to hide these feelings in shame.  And for many depressed women and men, it’s only when they realize that they are not alone in their journeys that they can begin to seek healing and therapy.  It’s only by having someone share their own struggles with loneliness and shame that a healing connection can be made.
The same goes with sin.  Unless someone comes to us and shows us that we do not have to be defined by our sin and the accompanying sense of shame we feel like we must struggle alone.  We feel like we have to stay pressured and bullied by a system that forces us to make hard choices.  And that even though we might have been trapped by the system we still made the mistake and we must feel bad about that.  
And because of that very one Peter ends up denying, we do not have to sit alone in our sin and we do have a chance to be healed.  For Peter this healing comes after Easter Sunday when “spoiler alert” Jesus is raised from the dead.  Peter is sitting on a beach having breakfast with Jesus when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him - no tricks, no traps, just a simple question about love.  And Peter replies that of course he does.  And this happens three times.  Just like Peter’s three denials.  Three moments of forgiveness and healing and connection to overcome the guilt and shame Peter probably felt after the night of Jesus’ arrest.  
And then for us, these moments of grace happen at the beginning of our worship services every Sunday.  We stand together and look at our baptismal font and say the same words recognizing that we have sinned and are broken, and need the one who works through the waters of baptism to heal us and make us whole.  
And even though there’s grace in the absolution that is proclaimed after our confession, I think we sometimes overlook the other moment of grace in our confession.  Confession together isn’t this time to feel ashamed because of the brokenness we feel inside, but rather it’s an opportunity to celebrate because we can see that everyone feels broken in some part of their lives too.  That we aren’t alone in this.  We don’t have to live in depression or sadness.  We don’t need to feel ashamed.  We have a whole community that has been joined together through the waters of baptism and we can begin to see each other as brothers and sisters - and see each other as only brothers and sisters can.  That way we look at our siblings, see their flaws and imperfections, and then love them anyways.  
And then we hear together that God comes to us, and forgives the sin, takes away the shame, and helps us the next time we are faced with impossible choices.  And then continues to forgive us when we feel like we need to hide and live in shame.  And God has promised to do this forever and ever.  Amen.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Learning to Serve

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday March 16, 2014. The text for the sermon was John 13:1-17.

As a child and teen, I had several chores that I would do throughout the week to earn my allowance.  And these chores were your basic, run of the mill chores that a kid would have to do: make my bed, clear the table, empty the dishwasher, etc.  But my least favorite chore to do as a child was to pick up after the dogs in the backyard.  My brother and I would each have a plastic bag and scour the yard looking for the presents our dogs would leave.  Trust me on this, not a fun chore to do.
And yet, it was a completely necessary chore.  My dogs couldn’t pick it up.  And if it was still there when my dad and later I went through with the mower, there was no way to pick it up after it had been smushed by the tires.  And if we wanted to play in the backyard, we wanted to make sure that our feet were clean when we came into the house - cause what self respecting kid wears shoes in the summer if they don’t have to?
And as I think about this chore from childhood and what my feet probably looked like when I came in after playing outside with my brother and our friends, I’m reminded of the text this morning.  
Picking up dog poop in the backyard with a Wal-Mart bag was certainly less degrading than what the servants of Jesus’ day had to do.  Wash feet?  Seriously?  Who would want to wash the feet of another person?  It’s gross for us to think about now, and we don’t walk everywhere in bare feet.  We don’t have to walk on dusty roads where camels and horses and donkeys all walk...no wonder for the people living in Jesus’ time thought feet where the most shameful part of the body.  I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to wash my feet for me after a day in the summer sun running through the grass at the age of ten.
So then it’s a complete and total shock when Jesus takes off his outer robe, and then starts to wash the feet of the disciples.  This guy, who they believe - rightly so - to be the Messiah, the Son of God, has taken on the role of the most lowly of the servants.  He’s going to wash their feet?  He’s going to wash all the dust, the dirt, the camel crap off of their feet?  No wonder Peter reacts so strongly.  Either that or maybe he’s really ticklish.
But I can’t blame Peter for his reaction.  He had a different expectation of the Messiah.  He’s been waiting for someone to come down and wipe the Romans from the face of Israel.  He’s been waiting for someone to come down and answer all the questions about God.  He’s been waiting for a king.  A priest.  A teacher.  Certainly not a servant.  And yet, here Jesus is.  Serving just like the unknown servant in our Isaiah text this morning.  
Jesus is shaking up the disciples, and I think our, understanding of God and what the kingdom will look like.  It’s not about being able to rule over people weaker than you, instead its about loving them and serving them.  It’s about meeting people where they are and not being afraid to get our hands dirty.
Except we are afraid to get our hands dirty, more often than not.  We have all sorts of excuses about why we can’t help someone.  Of why we don’t “have” to help them.  But most of our excuses boil down to, at the end of the day, that we’re better than the person we are trying to help - all of a sudden we’ve just become like the person mistreating the woman at McDonald’s because his order wasn’t “just” right.  We walk past the pain and shame that these people have, much like most people in Jesus’ day would ignore the feet of those around them.
And Jesus, in teaching his disciples and us what it means to be a member of the kingdom of God says that if he, the Son of God can lower himself to wash the feet of those who are learning from him, then we don’t have an excuse to do the same for those around us.  It’s not about ignoring the shame and pain of those around us, but helping people through them.  Getting to know them, and loving them as Christ loves them and us.
And in all of these things, we know that Christ comes to us, helps us with our guilt and shame and pain, washing them away, making us feel clean again when we are tired.  Christ continually comes to us, strengthening us, and patiently reminding us that the kingdom of God is not being served, but serving.  And the service industry there is powerful and sacred.  Amen.