Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2012

Every Ash Wednesday, we read Psalm 51 together.  This Psalm perfectly outlines the heart of why we gather together every year and marks the beginning of Lent the way we do.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; In your great compassion blot out my offenses.

All of us have many fine qualities.  We are loving, giving people.  But all of us also have not-so-great qualities.  All of us—dare I say it—sin.  None of us live the Christian virtues perfectly, no matter how mature we are.  While we may strive to live lives of love, patience, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, self-control and kindness the human condition is such that we just can’t.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.

And while we may run around like crazy trying to deny that about ourselves 364 days a year, today, Ash Wednesday we can name these things about ourselves in this space, before God.

For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

How freeing to be able to be honest about ourselves!  I’ve mentioned before about how dinner parties in Princeton can sometimes feel like a competitive recitation of CVs and awards accoladed.  What a treat to get to say, “Guess what, world!  I’m not perfect!  My house is a mess and I’m sometimes impatient with my coworkers and I don’t always find children cute!  I like a good piece of gossip and most of the time I’d rather watch TV than pray and I haven’t brushed my dog’s teeth in six months!”

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.

The trick, of course, is that Ash Wednesday is not just about confession.  We aren’t meant to just offload and then walk out the door unchanged.  No, Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  One of the commentaries I read to prepare for today put it this way.

Imagine you have a dog and a cat.  You are making steak for dinner, so you lay it out to get to room temperature and when you get back to the kitchen you see the dog and cat eating up the last little bits of your delicious dinner.  Now the dog knows he is in trouble, so he comes up to you with his big eyes and his tail between his legs and begs you to please, please still love him.  The cat on the other hand looks at you as if he’s thinking, “Is there a problem here?”  But neither the dog nor the cat have repented in any way!  If you left the steak out the very next day, the outcome would be exactly the same![1]

We do the same thing with God and with each other.  Sometimes we sin and we feel TERRIBLE about it, but we do not do anything to change our behavior.  That is not repentance. Repenting means we are going to change the behavior, not just feel badly about it.

On the other hand, we may need God’s help to actually feel bad about our behavior.  We may be more like the cat in our story. We may be so self-important that we do not think we are capable of sin.  If we believe we are good people, then the things we do are good, right?  Wrong!

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed.

Our time on this earth is short.  We’ll be reminded today that we have come from dust and we will return to dust.  We don’t have time to fool around with any false illusions about who we are.  We must examine ourselves honestly and bring that account before God.

Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.

The good news is that the God before which we present ourselves is the same God who chose to so identify with our broken selves that he sent his Son to become fully human.  And that son loved us, empathized with us, and healed us.  He also defeated death, by experiencing death and then rising again, so we might have an eternity of life with God.

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

This Ash Wednesday, God invites you to come before him, and bring him your whole heart, as twisted and dusty as it might be.

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.


[1] Hoare, Geoffrey M. St. J. “Psalm 51:1-17 Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word:  Year B, Vol 2, 2008, p. 8.


Advent 1, Year B, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

The days got short and dark quickly, didn’t they?  Even though the shortened days come like clockwork, every autumn I am surprised.  I feel rushed into the falling leaves and apple cider.  I want to cling to warm, long days and fresh peaches just a few more weeks.  The early darkness is ominous somehow.  Darkness shrouds our world every afternoon, earlier and earlier, pushing us inside where we can take shelter in the warmth of our homes.  But we know the darkness is out there and it leaves us on edge.

Is it any wonder that we start flooding our world with cheerful Christmas lights and tinny holiday music and gingerbread lattes?  We cannot help ourselves. We cannot wait for Christmas. We cannot handle the anxiety of the darkness.  We have to mitigate the discomfort the darkness creates in us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Now imagine this same darkness, the same cold nights without the luxury of electric lights or piped in Christmas music.  Imagine the darkness without a hot mug of peppermint mocha.  Imagine being eight months pregnant, the hours stretching before you, the weight of your body pressing down on you, the anxiety of bearing the Lord’s child weighing on your mind.  Pregnancy has a way of slowing down time, pulling days into impossibly long stretches of time as you feel each creak of your joints, as you look at your nursery, so ready for a baby.  As you worry each time you don’t feel the baby kick or roll.  As you imagine the delightful and the horrific possibilities–the smell of a new baby and the violence of birth.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Each Advent we join Mary in her agonizing wait.  We know that Jesus will be born alive and squirming.  But Mary did not.  We know Jesus is God incarnate, but will still be a normal human baby, easy to hold and to love.  But Mary did not.  Mary must have wondered who this strange child would be.  Is the God of the universe capable of loving his mother?  Is the God that created all life able to be contained within a human exterior without destroying the vessel that contains him?  Oh, how Mary must have worried and waited.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Mary was not the first person to anxiously wait for God.  Longing for God has been part of the human condition since Adam and Eve were banned from the Eden.  The separation we have from God is not natural, not how we are meant to be.  The Psalmist today is miserable.  He cries

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

The Psalmist feels that God has turned his back on his people and calls out to him

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The Psalmist does not ask for God to intervene, to defeat the Psalmist’s enemies, to change their situation.  He asks God to shine his face upon his people.

The Psalmist expresses our deepest desire so simply.

At our core, we long for God.  We long for the intimacy of knowing and being known by God.  We long to be restored to the days of Eden, when we could walk with God in a garden.

When we are in our darkest corners, what we want is for God’s light to break through somehow, so we know we are not alone, so we know he will sustain us no matter what happens.  We can survive any number of personal tragedies so long as we have a sense of God’s presence in our lives.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

We live in an in-between time.  Biblical scholars refer to it as the parousia.  The already, but not yet.  Jesus has come, but we are not yet fully restored to intimacy with God.  We live in-between the incarnation and the coming of God’s Kingdom.   We live in-between knowing God loves us enough to die for us but not seeing mercy and justice dominate our world.  We still wait.  We wait for Jesus to come back.

Advent gives us a liturgical space to live into this tension.  The nights are dark, but it is not yet time for Christmas.  Michael’s stinks like potpourri and Quakerbridge Mall has prepared Santa’s throne, but we know in our hearts we are still waiting for that baby to be born.  Still hoping that baby will bear God’s light.  We light one candle every week to give us hope, to remind us we will not be stuck in the dark forever.  Eventually we will light the center candle, the Christ candle.  Eventually that baby will be born.  Eventually he will come back.  Eventually we will be restored to perfect intimacy with our Creator.

But for now, we wait.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Epiphany I, Year B, 2009

My husband, Matt, just finished reading The Life of Pi.  I read it a few years ago and don’t remember all the details, but when I began thinking about this week’s readings, I kept coming back to the main image of The Life of Pi, which is the image of a young boy, stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, with a  zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger.  Now, being stranded in the middle of the sea in a small boat is bad enough, but you can imagine that wild animals as your shipmates complicate matters.  At one point, after the tiger has dispatched with the zebra and hyena, Pi writes a message and puts it in a bottle.  The message reads,

Japanese owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacfic, four days out of Manila.  Am in lifeboat.  Pi Patel is my name.  Have some food, some water, but Bengal Tiger is serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada.  Any help is very much appreciated.  Thank you. (p. 238)

Ah yes, those Bengal Tigers will get you every time.

Being stranded in a boat is a powerful image because endless water is one of the most primal, beautiful, but fearful images in the human psyche.  Water, though it sustains us, can also completely subsume us.  Water symbolizes that which we both need, but that threatens to destroy us if not controlled.

Water courses throughout our readings today.  We begin in Genesis with the wild waters of creation that simmer in the chaos, not yet controlled by land.  These images continue in descriptions of thunder, storms, and flooding that threaten the Psalmist.  Water is presented here as something extremely powerful and dangerous.

If water represents unknown, uncontrollable forces, then it certainly is a metaphor for our times, isn’t it!  In my three and a half years here I have never received as many calls and visits for financial assistance as I have the last three months.  People are getting hours cut back and fired because businesses just can’t sustain activity in the current economy.  Being a worker right now feels a bit like being afloat in a boat on the wild seas.

And in such unsteady times, if any additional part of your life begins to fall apart, it can feel like there is a Bengal tiger right in your boat with you!

For better or worse, we are not the only group of people who has ever felt this kind of anxiety.  In fact, most of our readings today were written to respond to anxiety.  When everything is going well, and you sense the presence of God very clearly, you don’t need to be reminded about who God is.  However, when things in your life are rocky, you need all the reminders of God’s goodness you can get.  When you are an Israelite who has been exiled from Jerusalem, you might need to hear about the God that controlled chaos and created plants, animals and people with loving care.  If you are an early Christian who fears being persecuted, you might want to be reminded that Jesus really was the son of God, and that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.

Telling our stories is a powerful antidote to anxiety. We tell stories from the Bible every week in church because they remind us of who God is.  We need those reminders on a regular basis to stay rooted in our identity as God’s children.

The stories we tell in this week’s lectionary readings remind us both who God is and also who we are in relation to God.

Our first reading is the very first passage from Genesis.  When the creation story starts, the world is nothing but a formless void.  The world is dark and filled with water.  We don’t get the whole creation story, but we get the very beginning images: a wind from God sweeping over those vast waters and then out of the darkness, comes light.  God makes something out of nothing.  God sheds light where there was only darkness.  God takes something chaotic and scary and makes something beautiful and life-filled. Although water can be overwhelming and uncontrollable, in this passage, God is fully in control and able to shape and guide the powerful element. This passage reminds us of God’s control and the way God brings light into difficult situations.

The author of Psalm 29 calls out to this Creator God as he faces a terrible storm, and reminds himself that the Lord God is incredibly powerful and reigns even over the floods and cracking trees and thunder that the storm brings.  The Psalmist gives us a model of how to pray in the midst of crisis.  He is able to celebrate God, even while being nervous about his own safety.

Our stories from the New Testament today address water and God’s relationship to water in a different way.  Both stories are about baptism.  In the Gospel we have Jesus’ baptism and in the epistle we have the baptism of Apollos.  While these images may seem completely unrelated to the images of wild and dangerous water from the Old Testament readings, danger is actually a part of baptism.

Baptism symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death.  Like Jesus’ baptism, early baptisms were all fully immersion baptisms.  People who wanted to be baptized were pushed under the water and then hauled out again three times.  Being pushed under, symbolized drowning, reminding the baptized of the power of water and of death.  When you were pulled back out, it symbolized your new life in Christ. And like God shows up in the Old Testament when waters become dangerous, God shows up at baptism, too.  Both Jesus and Apollos experience the Holy Spirit after their baptisms.  In the book of Acts, Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit gets sent at baptism to be our Comforter and guide.

We need to be reminded of the Holy Spirit.  We need to be reminded that even amidst the roiling waters God sends us a comforter and guide to help us through difficult times.  We need to be reminded that God is with us, even as we face off our own Bengal tigers in our tiny boats.

And so, we tell our stories.  We tell stories of God’s faithfulness in the Bible, but we can also tell stories of God’s faithfulness in our own histories.  I think of all the stories I know about how God has shown up in my life and your lives just in the nick of time.  These stories calm me.  They remind me that God is with me.

You might remember times when you thought you would be adrift forever, but then God rescued you in unexpected ways.  Better yet, you might remember a time when you were lost on the seas, but suddenly God helped you to see that you were not lost after all-you were just on a little character building adventure.

This remembering is what puts legs on our faith.  Telling our stories gives us the courage we need to take risks, to be brave in unfortunate circumstance, to be kind when we are feeling threatened. Telling our stories helps us to be true to our baptismal promises on the days when they seem silly or outdated.

Telling our stories helps us to remember that God holds us up amidst the waters, even if there is a tiger in our boat.

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year A, 2008

Have you all seen the ATT commercial with Sven?  Sven is a giant blonde Swede. We first meet Sven as he is sitting squarely between a sleeping married couple.  As they wake up, Sven tells them that the wife’s stocks are up, and the husband’s stocks are down. He tells the husband about all his emails as the husband walks to the bathroom. Sven then wakes the daughter and reminds her she has kung fu at 2:00.  Then, as the family has breakfast, he takes out a flip chart and makes sure everyone knows the day’s schedule.  At the end of the commercial, he greets everyone at the front door with giant wool sweaters as he tells them to bundle up because of the cold outside.  The products ATT are selling are their smart phones, but I am left wanting not a phone, but a Sven!

How great would it be to have a chirpy, efficient, tall Swede guide me through my day? Sven would make sure I ate a nutritious breakfast, remembered to do the laundry, wore the appropriate clothes for every occasion.  When I got distracted on Facebook, he would gently but firmly remind me the importance of finishing my sermon in a timely manner.  He would make sure I worked on my quilt instead of watching another episode of Jeopardy.  If I had a Sven in my life I would be more productive, more efficient, more in shape.  (Sigh.)  I want a Sven!

But, I don’t have a Sven.  My phone is not even smart-the only thing it can do is. . .make phone calls. It’s amazing that I remember to show up for church, really.

Sometimes, when I think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I’d like him to be a little more like Sven.

I’d like the Good Shepherd to guide this little sheep around and make her more efficient, more effective, more focused.

But it turns out, the Good Shepherd is not a self-help guru.  The Good Shepherd is not Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, or Stephen Covey.  If we follow the Good Shepherd, we won’t learn a new system for organizing our desks, or an exercise plan that will help us have rock hard abs, or a method to raise our children as productive members of society.

After all, sheep don’t have existential crises or schedules that need to be organized.

Sheep just are.  They eat, they sleep, they follow.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds heavenly to me!

I, like many of you, I’m sure, have a serious case of wanna-be-shepherd-itis.  Wanna-be-shepherd-itis is a terrible condition in which you forget you are a sheep and try to be a shepherd instead.  Instead of peacefully following the shepherd, the sheep tries to take over.

Let me describe to you how this goes terribly, terribly wrong:

My preparations for Chuck’s sabbatical have not been the most calm, centered and spiritual exercises.  Instead of quietly saying my prayers and waiting to see what God would have me to each day, I propelled myself into quite a tizzy.  I cleaned off my desk and filed a year’s worth of paperwork.  I made a giant list of all the tasks I need to accomplish, For some reason, I even insisted on frantically deep cleaning my refrigerator at home and organizing the spice rack, as if having expired tins of cloves and moldy leftovers hanging around might seriously affect the quality of my work this summer.

As I wound myself more and more tightly, the circumference of my anxiety widened and soon had nothing to do with the sabbatical!

Luckily, Matt pulled me from the brink and reminded me gently that I was worrying about things over which I had no control.  Matt reminded me that I am not the shepherd of my future.

What a relief!  In that moment I was able to take a deep breath and take my rightful place as a sheep.  When Jesus reminds us that we are sheep, he tells us that our job is to be responsible for the present.  We don’t need to worry about what has happened in the past, we don’t need to worry about what will happen in the future.  Our job as sheep is to learn our Shepherd’s voice and then be quiet enough to identify that voice among the throngs of voices we hear every day.

And we are inundated with voices, aren’t we?  One of the byproducts of our marvelous technology is that it multiplies exponentially the voices we hear.  Two hundred years ago, you heard the voices of your family, friends, colleagues, newspapers and books.  Then the radio was added, next television, then cable television, and finally the internet.  Now we can have access to almost any voice we want.  Even the soothing voice of Sven the Swedish home organizer.

Jesus refers to thieves and bandits presenting themselves as false shepherds.  At the time, he was probably speaking about the Pharisees or false messianic leaders who came before him.  I think, though, if we look hard enough we can find plenty of thieves and bandits in our own day.  Whether religious, political, or media leaders, there are plenty of people who would happily lead us by the nose, pumping us full of false information. Thankfully, none of these voices are our true Shepherd.  Thankfully, our Shepherd is a Good Shepherd who is full of truth, and honor, and love.

Distinguishing the Shepherd’s voice from the cacophony we hear every day is not easy, but it is worth the challenge.  Listening to that voice is not only the right thing to do, it is also in our best interest.  Remember-the Good Shepherd is not a self-help guru.  The Good Shepherd is not going to help us frantically do anything.  Instead, the Good Shepherd will help us to be-to be still-to know ourselves and to know him.

Our Shepherd longs to guide us to lush green fields, abundant with life’s blessings.  Our Shepherd is armed with a rod to protect us from harm and a staff to gather us when we go astray.    Our Shepherd wants only what is good for us, unlike so many of the voices we hear!

No matter what madness is happening around us, the Shepherd will lead us to a quiet place inside ourselves where we can feel safe and secure and loved.

No other voice, no one else, not even Sven, can lead us there.

Proper 18, Year C, 2007

Sometimes in the Old Testament, God can seem far off and remote.  We have a hard time connecting with such an impersonal God.  Then, every once in awhile, we read something that shocks us into remembering that God loves us personally and passionately.  Both of today’s readings from the Old Testament wake us up to God’s relationship with us.

Our Psalm today is one of the most beautiful Psalms in the Psalter.  The Psalmist marvels at God’s knowledge and care for us from the time we are in our mother’s wombs, to the end of our days.  The Psalmist has come to understand that no matter where we go in our lives, or how far we may try to run from our experiences, God is always with us, caring for us and shaping us.

This idea of God shaping us takes even further form in our passage from Jeremiah.  In this prophetic piece of writing, God is describing to Jeremiah how God can shape the fortunes of Israel like a potter shapes a piece of clay.  This metaphor is really powerful-God as a potter means that God is hands on with us, that God molds and shapes us in an intimate way.

I don’t know much about pottery-my most formative mental image of pottery is as a 13 year old watching agog as Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze steamed up the pottery wheel in the movie Ghost.  So, I asked some questions of those who do know something about pottery and this is what I learned.

Pottery has five main steps.  First, the potter kneads the clay.  This prepares the clay to be shaped later.  Next, the potter throws the clay-this is the image crystallized so clearly in Ghost-when the potter places the clay on a wheel and begins to shape the clay as the wheel moves.  Third, the potter fires the clay, in order for the pot to hold its shape.  Fourth, the potter glazes the pot to add color and finally, the potter fires the pot again.

Being kneaded, thrown, and fired.  These are not universally pleasant images, but they certainly resonate with human experience.  How does God knead, throw and fire us?

Think of kneading as a time of preparation.  A potter must knead the clay before she throws the clay, because the clay must be pliable and homogenous.  Kneading gets out rough patches and soft spots.  Kneading makes clay flexible and useable. 

In our Christian journeys, let’s think of the time of kneading as the time when we gain the tools, flexibility and knowledge we need to deal with the world.  We are kneaded by God when we come to church, when we read the bible, when we pray.  We are kneaded by our parents as they teach us to share and play nicely with others.  We are kneaded as we go to school and learn to read, write, think, do math, conduct experiments.  We are kneaded as we learn to dance, play a sport, pick up a musical instrument.  God uses all these things in our youth and our adulthood to prepare us to be the fully formed people he created in our mother’s wombs.

The throwing stage can be a little more challenging.  Being pulled and pushed and shaped by God can be exhausting.  We’re constantly being shaped in order that we may live out more closely the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

My best friend, L., who often comes up in my sermons, is going through a period of being thrown by God at the moment.  For many years, she has consciously sought out jobs in which she did not have to be responsible for other people.  She is a hard worker, but the stress of managing others was just not worth the benefits for her.  She has been an administrator and personal assistant in a variety of capacities, but finally after getting the bill from the company that replaced the roof of her house this winter, she finally had the motivation she needed to seek a job with more responsibility (and a higher paycheck!)

She began work a few months ago in an office with a bunch of Ph.Ds and a lot of administrative assistants as their first office manager. Every day she is being stretched-though she is an incredibly intelligent woman, the PhDs use words every day she’s never heard of.  Some administrative assistants resent her presence and the IT girl has commenced a war against her.  L’s intelligence is being stretched, her people skills are being pulled and prodded, her patience is tried every day, and her sheer physical endurance is growing as she works her tail off.  She knows God brought her to this job, but she also feels like she is reaching to the very edges of her ability for the first time in a long time. 

Being thrown on God’s potting wheel can be dizzying!  Having to grow as a person when we are already fully fledged adults can be really painful. But as Christians, as people in relationship with our Creator, we are never done growing, and God is never done with us. 

While being shaped on the potter’s wheel may be tiring, no experience quite matches that of then being placed in the potter’s fire.

At some point in our Christian journey, we will each find ourselves in the potter’s fire.  This may be prompted by an event in our lives, or it may simply be a spiritual experience.  This week, early reviews of Mother Theresa’s book of personal letters have been published.  What has shocked many people is that Mother Theresa spent much of her life-and all 50 years of her ministry as a nun–in deep spiritual turmoil.  She often felt as if God were far from her and went through periods where she doubted his existence entirely.  Instead of leaving the convent and her ministry, though, she stayed in the spiritual struggle.  She continued to pray, and read, and consult her own spiritual mentors.  She also continued serving those she was called to serve.  And though she would deny she was one, this faithfulness, this fight, is what formed her into a saint.  The fire of her doubt, ironically, is the fire that sanctified her, that showed forth her true self. 

The potter’s fire has also been described as the refining fire-it is the fire that burns away the parts of ourselves that are not true, and brings to light the parts of ourselves that God has created and shaped.  The potter’s fire may not come a purely spiritual struggle.  The potter’s fire may come as grief at the death of a loved one.  The fire may come during a painful divorce, or an illness, or after a dream has died.

As you know, though, not everyone who has been through a difficult period of their lives emerges from it enlightened and more themselves. People often leave the fire bitter and occasionally even broken. A potter’s fire is a dangerous place.  It is in the fire when glaze turns the wrong color, or even worse, when a piece of pottery shatters.

When we are in the fire, or when we know someone who is in the fire, we need to be extra gentle.  This is the time for extra prayer and rest and meditation.  This is the time for loving friends and trips to the spa.  We do not run away from our lives, but we do take deep breaths and more naps. 

The fire is not something inherently destructive-the fire is intended to shape and refine us.  God is not interested in our destruction, God is interested in our holiness, in our relationship with him and with each other.  Those fruits of the spirit that are formed when we are on the wheel are shined and honed in the fire. 

Pottery is known for being beautiful, but fundamentally pottery is known for being useful.  As Christians, God shapes us to be useful, too.  Useful to our families, useful to our churches and workplaces, useful to the poor and those who need extra help.  Today, at our Festival of Ministries, you will have the opportunity to think about how God has formed you for usefulness.  What experiences have you had that have made you better and more yourself?  What might God be preparing for you to do?  There is much work to be done here at Emmanuel, even if that work usually means having quite a bit of fun and spending time with really remarkable people.  You have a place-or several places!-here at Emmanuel, and today is your day to explore them!  So, whether you are a vase or a bowl; a plate or a coffee mug-we welcome to spend time with us after church today deciding what kind of piece of pottery you are!

Proper 15, Year C, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is too hot for today’s lectionary readings.  In the weather we’ve had the last few weeks, we should be reading about green pastures or cool streams.  Jesus should be telling us something soothing and refreshing, the spiritual equivalent of lemonade. Today’s readings are more like steaming hot coffee: if you’re not careful, they’ll burn you.

In our reading from Isaiah, God is describing his people as a vineyard that he planted and tended, but who turned out to have wild grapes, rather than cultivated, edible ones.  If you look closely, though, you’ll see this passage is not just about gardening.  The first verse of the passage uses both the words “beloved” and “love song”.  This gives us a clue that the following passage is passionate.  After all, a love song’s lyrics never go, “Oh, I sort of liked you, but now it is over, and that’s okay, I guess.”  Love songs are filled with passion and longing and heart break. 

Occasionally, a love song will have a happy ending, but more often than not love songs are songs of mourning-mourning the end of a relationship, mourning betrayal, mourning unrequited love.  Our love song from Isaiah this morning does exactly that.  It is a song from God to Israel.  God is heartbroken that Israel has betrayed him and become a society marked by bloodshed and injustice.  Israel has broken God’s heart over and over again, and God has always come back for more. He is sad and angry and so he shares today’s song with the prophet Isaiah.

If you replace the word vineyard with the word sweetheart, parts of the song sound like modern love songs.

Judge between me
and my sweetheart.
What more was there to do for my sweetheart
that I have not done in it?

This is a common theme in love songs, right?  “What more could I do baby?  I’d do anything to get you back, darlin’.  I’ve worked so hard, but still you don’t respect me.  What more can I do?  I buy you flowers, I make you dinner, but you just won’t stay around.”  We all know that feeling of working and working at a relationship with little pay off.

At the end of the song, God gets good and angry and sings,

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my sweetheart.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

This is the break up song!  Have you all every seen the movie Better off Dead?  It’s a John Hughes movie from the 80s about a boy who gets his heart broken when his girlfriend leaves him for a burly blonde prep school guy.  In one scene, our hero is driving down the street, totally morose, listening the radio.  He realizes he’s listening to a sad break up song, so he changes the channel, but every channel he turns to is just another tragic song about heart break.  He finally rips his radio out and throws it into the street. 

We don’t think about God being heart broken, or singing break up songs, but here we have one!  We think about God as lofty and somehow above emotion, but the image of God as humanity’s lover abounds throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Whenever Israel begins worshiping golden calves and that sort of nonsense, God gets flaming mad–the same kind of angry a husband would get at a straying wife.  God was passionate about Israel and is passionate about us.

That passion does not cease when Jesus comes to earth.

We think of Jesus as sweet, maybe even a little passive, not unlike this Jesus action figure-he’s attractive, but essentially mild.  But Jesus wasn’t mild.  Jesus was passion personified. 

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always aware that he is headed to Jerusalem, and that by heading to Jerusalem, he is heading to his death.  He knows he has a limited time to communicate his messages to his followers, and he seems particularly stressed by that in our passage today.  Jesus knows he is going to die soon and he passionately wants his listeners to hear the words he is saying to them.

The part of his discourse we overhear in today’s reading is full of the violent images of fire and division, but Jesus is not using destructive language for the sake of being destructive.  Jesus is using this intent, violent language in order to convey his passion and the sober and serious reality of being a Christian.

Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth.  What a terrifying image!  We think of house fires, forest fires, the images of burning oil wells in Iraq.  We think of fire as utterly destructive.  Does Jesus want to destroy us?  Fire can be destructive, but fire can also warm on a cold night, and bring light where there was only darkness.  Even destructive fires, like a forest fire, can clear out dead brush and create a path for new life to flourish. 

But in this passage, fire is the least of our problems!  

Despite the Christian Coalition’s claims that Jesus was really concerned about white American middle class values, in this passage, Jesus rips the idea of the nuclear family apart.  Why would he do this?  Does he hate children and grandparents, family dinners and game nights? 

Probably not, but Jesus does want to make it very clear that following him has consequences.  Following Jesus is not like having a job; following Jesus is like being in a passionate relationship.  And if you’re in a passionate relationship, for better or worse, you’re going to mow down your relatives if they are standing between you and your lover.  Jesus wants all of our time and energy-not just the occasional prayer or Sunday morning church attendance.  Jesus wants our entire heart and soul; our mind and body.   Jesus realizes that not all of the families of his listeners are going to be thrilled if they become his followers.  Their mothers and wives; fathers and husbands may freak out if all of a sudden they left their jobs, left their homes, in order to follow Jesus.  Jesus wants his listeners to know there is a cost to following him, and that cost may be in the form of relationships.

We make a huge mistake if we think we can be part-time Christians, or be a Christian without radically changing the way we live.  Being a Christian is a life altering, full bodied, relational experience.  Being a Christian is like being married or being a son or daughter-it changes and defines who we are as we are in relationship.  God pursues us with intensity, passion and jealousy.  If we begin worshiping money, status, a job, or even our families, God will chase after us and try to win us back. 

We are God’s beloved.  God has created us and invested in us and he loves us deeply.  We have the capacity to betray God.  We have the capacity to break God’s heart.  Thankfully for us, one thing God will not do is give up on us.  We are his and he loves us.  


Lent 2, Year C, 2007

What are you afraid of?

Are you afraid of dying?  Are you afraid you’ll never find meaningful work?  Are you afraid because you don’t have the power to help someone you love?

Fear is something we all experience.  If we are observing Lenten practices, we become even more open to fear, as we strip away the things in life that soothe us and face the reality of our thoughts and spirits. 

This week in the magazine the Christian Century, Peter Steinke reminds us of the theologian Paul Tillich’s work with human anxiety.  Tillich believed there were three kinds of anxiety that all humans face.  First, the anxiety of non being (which is a fancy name for the fear of death).  Second, the anxiety of meaninglessness.  Third, the anxiety of fate. 

We are all too familiar with the anxiety of non-being, the anxiety of death.  We exercise, go to the doctor regularly, watch our cholesterol, get plastic surgery: all attempts to delay our inevitable meeting with death.

The anxiety of meaninglessness is more subtle.  The phenomenon of the mid-life and quarter-life crisis come from this anxiety-the anxiety that we are not fulfilling our destiny, that our lives lack import and consequence.  Moms who struggle with whether to work or to stay home are dealing with this anxiety.  College graduates who have not quite found their way are looking to ease this anxiety with work that is fulfilling and financially prudent.  Those who struggle with this anxiety often end up at church, seeking deeper meaning for their life.

Finally, the anxiety of fate.  We can only control so much of our lives.  We don’t know how long we’ll be in our job, or whether our children will succeed in life, whether we’ll always be healthy, whether our country will always be secure, and this week-whether the stock market was going to recover from Tuesday’s crash.  This finitude, this inability to predict or shape so much of our lives causes us great worry! 

In our scripture readings today:  Abraham, the Psalmist, and Jesus each faced anxiety, and illustrate different ways of dealing with anxiety.

We meet with Abraham as he encounters the presence of God.  Previously, God has told Abraham that he and his elderly wife Sarah will conceive a child, but this event has not yet occurred.  So, God meets with Abraham and makes a profound covenant with him-promising Abraham will have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky.  Well, Abraham and Sarah have a serious case of anxiety about their fate and take matters into their own hands.  Immediately after this profound spiritual experience, Abraham rushes home and lets his wife talk him into having their servant, Hagar, carry their child!

Abraham faced the challenge so many of us face: letting go.  How many of us, five minutes after relinquishing a problem to God in prayer, immediately begin trying to solve the problem using our own intelligence or creativity. 

Our psalmist, on the other hand, seems to have such a deep understanding of God’s love and provision for him that he is able to say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?”  The Psalmist comes to this conclusion as he meditates on his fear of death from his enemies’ hands.  Even as they surround him and he cannot control their movements he finds the place deep inside himself where he can wait on God patiently.  He writes,

O tarry and await the LORD’S pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; *
wait patiently for the LORD. 

The Psalmist has a profound understanding that God’s timing and provision is mysterious but reliable.  I, for one, am much more likely to tell God exactly what he’s supposed to do, rather than being patient and waiting on God.

Our gospel passage today is a really unusual reading, in that the Pharisees, who usually give Jesus such a hard time, actually warn Jesus that Herod is after him.  The want Jesus to run away and protect himself.  However, Jesus, being God, shows absolutely no fear.  He moves beyond even the Psalmist’s faith-telling the Pharisees that there is no way that Herod could be a threat to him, for Jesus knows he is not supposed to die until he reaches Jerusalem.  Phew!  I cannot imagine the kind of faith that is required to disregard a death threat so casually.  Jesus’ response was not a denial of his ultimate death-in fact, he fully acknowledged that his own death was imminent, but seems totally calm about this fact that would have most of us shaking in our boots!  Jesus knows that God is with him. 

One of my favorite gospel hymns comes from our psalm today, “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”  I am always moved that a group of people who had so much to fear-slaves-were able to sing this hymn as a meditation, as a cry for hope, as a testimony to their faith.  Like the psalmist, like Jesus those who sang this hymn were able to claim God’s presence in a very powerful way.

We, too, can claim the hymn’s promises.

As Americans, we are famously independent.  We are supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and succeed through commitment and hard work.  While these are fine principles, what ends up happening is that we mistakenly come to believe that we are completely in charge of our destiny.  Recently a video of motivational speakers called, “The Secret” was published.  The thesis is basically this:  The energy you send out into the world will come back to you.  Focus on what you really want on life and it will come to you.  Well, positive thinking is well and good, but positive thinking will not cure infertility or make the stock market bounce back or protect us from floods or terrorist attacks.  When we start putting our faith into positive thinking, putting faith into ourselves, we deny the reality that part of life is pain, part of life is suffering. 

What the psalmist is not saying is that God will rescue us from suffering.  What the psalmist is saying is that God will be with us in suffering.  We do not have to fear because God will be with us in the midst of both our joyous celebrations and our deepest grief.  God is with those we cannot protect or control.  God is even working somewhere deep inside people who torment us. 

So whatever it is that makes you anxious, makes you afraid, I invite you to meditate with the words of our psalm today:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

 God is with you.  Thanks be to God.

Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2007

Today we observe one of the most solemn days of the church year:  Ash Wednesday.  On this day we remember our mortality and begin 40 days of Lent, during which we prepare ourselves for Christ’s death and resurrection.

Last week at Children’s worship, Jane Lynch spoke to the kids about how Lent is a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection.  When one little boy got back to his mother, he tugged at her anxiously and said, “They killed Baby Jesus!”  Because this was new information to this almost-three year old, he was able to experience the deep shock and pain of Christ’s death.  Just wait until he hears that Christ comes to life again!  He’s going to be blown away.

As adult believers, it is difficult to keep the sorrow over Christ’s death and the joy over the resurrection fresh.  We have heard the story over and over again, but the meaning of the story begins to recede as time passes.  We go about our days getting more and more caught up in the details:  what to make for dinner, what needs to be crossed off our to-do lists, where the kids need to be when.  We don’t have a lot of time to think about theological issues.

Ash Wednesday pulls the rug out from under us.  As we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, as we hear the words, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” we remember that no matter how many errands we run, how many meals we cook, how many days we go into the office, all that will stop one day, and we will die. 

Suddenly Christ’s death and resurrection take on a great deal of significance.  For, through this miraculous event, our deaths are no longer meaningless and terrifying.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know we have a hope and a future. 

So, now that we have been stopped short from our crazy lives, how can we live the next 40 days in such a way that will ready us to hear the good news of God’s salvation?

Our Gospel passage today, guides us, through telling us what Jesus does not want.  What Jesus does not want is for us to beat our chests in public, shouting “woe is me!” so that everyone knows how fabulously penitent we are this Lent.

Like most of our faith, Lent is about relationship. 

When we sacrifice something we enjoy, we open space in our lives for God to enter.  Each time we reach for that cookie, or the remote, or whatever it is we have decided to sacrifice, we are reminded of God’s presence.  Think of that object of sacrifice as a little post-it-note reminding you to say hello to God, reminding you to meditate on Christ’s suffering and glory.  Sacrificing is difficult, but it turns us toward our maker, the One who gives us strength when we are weak and forgiveness when we are even weaker. 

Lent is not about how much you can punish yourself.  Lent is about finding a way to open yourself to the One who created you and who sacrifices his own identity for you.   Lent is about drawing near to God’s presence.  Sacrifice reveals to us our own weaknesses and the strength of our desires for things that are not essential, maybe even not good for us.  When we are reminded of our own weakness, we turn to God, for help and for mercy.

This last week, Chuck and I have been spending a lot of time with a young couple whose twins were born nearly three months early.  We’ve also spent a lot of time with families planning their matriarchs and patriarch’s funerals.  In both these cases-at the fragile beginning of life and the quiet end-these families were turned to God, seeking comfort, healing, and understanding. 

For these families, sacrifice is not an abstract concept, but a very concrete one.  They know that when their security is taken from them, turning to God can bring meaning and comfort. 

In a similar, but much smaller way, our sacrifices help us to cling to God.  For as our psalmist reminds us today:

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children.

God loves us and desires relationship with us.  This Lent we are invited to enter more deeply into that relationship.







Proper 27, Year B, 2006

Do you ever have those moments in meetings when the conversation gets to a subject matter not in your area of responsibility, and you drift off for a moment?  I had one of those a few vestry meetings ago.

I was probably thinking about decorating the guestroom, or what menu to choose for the wedding reception, possibly even about something responsible like Sunday school or children’s worship.  Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Chuck say, “I’d like to concentrate on World Peace on Veterans Day.  I hope our preacher will be able to incorporate that. . .”

Suddenly I realized everyone was looking at me.  I, in fact, was scheduled to preach on Veteran’s Day.  That certainly got my attention, but I was left with a fundamental problem.  I don’t believe in world peace.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against world peace.  If the nations of the world decided to beat their weapons into plowshares, I would celebrate wholeheartedly. 

I just don’t believe that day will come while humans still exist on this planet.  We humans have this nasty problem called sin.  And while we often think of sin in terms of tawdry behavior, like the recent evangelical pastor who was ousted from his congregation for purchasing sex and drugs from a male prostitute (that always ends well), sin can also lead us to abuse power, because power feels so fantastic. 

Like sex or alcohol, power can intoxicate and affect the way we treat others around us, and can definitely affect decisions we make.  And as long as power has this effect on leaders, World Peace will be along way off.

Both our Gospel reading and Psalm today are about the abuse of power.  We often think of the story of the Widow’s mite in terms of stewardship.  We picture Jesus sweetly extolling the virtues of this dear woman who gave God everything she had. 

Well, read more closely.  Jesus is not in a peaceful frame of mind, Jesus is boiling mad.  The first sentence of the gospel today reads,

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. 

We do not know exactly what the scribes were doing to take advantage of widows, but we knew Jesus was not happy about it.  To see a widow give all she had to the treasury must have been heartbreaking to Jesus.  Yes, it was an act of faith, but the widow should not have been put in that position to start with!  The scribes and other leaders were supposed to take care of widows, not take advantage of them.  The scribes abused their power.

Jesus battled against the lure of power his entire ministry.  During his 40 days in the desert, one of the temptations with which Satan taunted Jesus was to remind Jesus he could have power over all the kingdoms of the world.  But Jesus refused.  And he taught this philosophy to his followers.  To help his disciples resist the temptation of power, he told them not to get attached to any one town, but to do their ministry and keep moving, accepting gifts from no one.  Jesus and the disciples lived simple lives and though constantly surrounded by crowds, never gave into the temptation to abuse the power they had been granted.

Our Psalm today reiterates this distrust of those in seats of power. 

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,   
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.

What is interesting about this passage, is that the word for rulers is a word with very positive connotations. The word can mean generous man, or noble man.  Yet, the psalm is telling us not even to trust noble rulers!  Instead the psalm tells us to trust the God of Jacob-the God who has been faithful for generations. 

The controversial activist and Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan once wrote,

I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ

Daniel Clendenin, founder of Journey with Jesus has updated this to read,

I cannot be saved by George Bush or Jesse Jackson,
by Hillary Clinton or Condi Rice, nor by their successors or opponents.
I cannot be saved by Green Peace or the ACLU,
by Focus on the Family or by Promise Keepers.

Which returns us to the Psalm for this week: “Blessed is he whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God”

This Tuesday many of us went to the polls, hoping either for change or to prevent change.  We put hope in our leaders hoping our Congressmen and women will be upright, honest and wise.  We hope that if we elect the right people into our government, that we will be safe and secure.

Our readings today remind us that not even the best politician, the most noble leader with excellent policy, can save us in any kind of existential or permanent way-only God can do that. 

Knowing this, the temptation then becomes, “Well, then why should I care about what happens in politics?  Why should I care about world peace?  If my security is bound up with God and not with leaders here on earth, why participate in the system?”

While God warns us about the dangers of power, he simultaneously calls us to create cultures of justice and integrity.

Remember the widow and how angry the scribes made Jesus?  Jesus expected the Scribes to create a culture of justice and instead they participated in a culture that took advantage of widows!

Our ultimate reality is grounded in God, but this is the same God that calls us to live here on earth.  There’s a term that describes this-the already and the not yet.  God has already saved us and we are already his-but it is not yet time for God’s kingdom to  come to fruition and in the meantime, we must be fully present in our daily lives.

We’ve talked a lot about stewardship the last month, but I invite you to think about stewardship in a broader sense.  God has entrusted us with these lives, with this country, with this planet.  He charges us to create societies in which widows and orphans are taken care of, in which justice and mercy are prevailing qualities. 

We may not have power to create world peace single handedly, but in America, we are blessed, because we are each empowered to participate in our government.  We don’t have to rely on the scribes or a dictator or a king.  This week we each had the opportunity to vote, to build a government-what an incredible opportunity to create a government that loves justice.  We also have the power to reach beyond our class and racial lines to build connections with those who are not like us.  We have the power to live on this planet lightly, being stewards of this earth we are currently treating so poorly.  Stewardship is not only about responsibility, it’s also about power-the power God gives us to take care of each other, the power to make change for the good, the power to live life thoughtfully and with care.

And we may not be able to create world peace, but we can create a culture that values just war, and taking care of widows, orphans, the disabled, and the elderly.  We can create a culture that is more interested in connection than division, reconciliation than hatred, information rather than ignorance. And we can do this because we know that ultimately our security and hope rest in the God who loves us-all of us, Democrat and Republican, gay and straight, women and men, children and adults. 

Thanks be to God.

Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2006

From our Psalm today:  “He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness”

Today we gather to observe Ash Wednesday.  We gather to remember our mortality, to repent of our sins, and to prepare ourselves for Lent.  This service is a painful one-full of images of our brokenness and our sin, but it is not a service that is without hope. 

Ash Wednesday and Lent provide the space for us to contemplate the darker areas of our lives.  We spend so much of our time fulfilling responsibilities that need to be filled, we tend not to have a lot of time to think and pray about the larger issues that may haunt us-grief over a loved ones’ death or the end of a relationship, fear about our own deaths, concern about our separation from God.  Unlike the sometimes forced cheerfulness of Christmas or Easter, Lent gives us permission to be more contemplative, less happy. 

For me, Lent is a time to remember my mother’s death.  She died six years ago this week.  Each Lent that has followed has felt a little different.  The first Lent I was still too stunned to feel much of anything.  The second Lent I was angry and felt piercing sadness. By the third Lent, I had found some level of peace and resignation.  In preparation for this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, I have been thinking about these words we will use in a few minutes:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. 

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we are but flesh.  My mother was dead two days before anyone found her, and the image of her abandoned, lifeless body has stayed with me as an image of the organic finality of death.  The last few years, we have been overwhelmed by images of death:  the victims of the Tsumani, of the war in Iraq, of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The image of an unclaimed body is a lonely one, and thousands of bodies remain unclaimed, unidentified from these disasters.  What are we, in the end, but dust?  A pile of molecules tentatively held together by water and energy.  Or are we?

The words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” contain more than this barren image of death. Humans do not only end as dust, we began as dust as well. 

Remember you are dust. . . evokes the image of the Creator God breathing into dust to create human life.  When we say Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. . .we remind ourselves that the very ground of our being both created us and will be with us when we die.  We are reminded that our deaths are not a mere organic event, but are a transition-all within the scope of God’s loving care.  There is no place we can run to escape the love of God. Even our deaths do not separate us from Him. 

My mother was not really alone at the time of her death, and none of us will be, either.  We are not alone in our grief, in our depression, in our anger, even in our loneliness.  The same God who breathed life into the first man, and tenderly created the first woman, made each of us, and we rest in his loving hands throughout our entire lives.  Death is not powerful enough to separate us from our Creator and Redeemer.  Nothing is. 

This Lent, we are invited to draw near to this God who created us with such care and affection.  We repent of our sins and give up small pleasures during Lent, not because God wants to judge us, but because God wants us to draw near to him, to need him in a way we don’t often allow ourselves. 

God wants to breathe life into you just as he breathed life into Adam. 

 He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;