Monday, October 22, 2018

Ask Not...

            Earlier this week, I asked Mary Katherine, “What did you do at school today?” She said, “I got the boringest job at school today.” I asked, “What job was that?” She said, “I was the caboose (the back of the train). That isn’t a very important job, is it?” The preacher in me said, “You know what Jesus said about being last. He said, ‘the last will be first.’” She went on to say, “that doesn’t make any sense, Dad.” (note to self: I am not my daughter’s preacher).
            Today, the disciples hear, for the seventh time in Mark’s gospel, the concept that the first will be last and the last will be first in the kingdom of God. And apparently, that doesn’t make any sense to the disciples either. This time, it is James and John, the so-called Sons of Thunder, who stick their foot in their mouth.
            Today’s lesson begins on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and is more convinced than ever that the victory of God is found through suffering and death on a cross in Calvary. 
Jesus knows there is no way around this suffering and death – the powers and principalities of this world will do everything in their power to make sure that the light of God doesn’t expose the lies and corruption of kingdoms that are built by taking advantage of the poor and powerless – the last. The disciples, however, misinterpret Jesus’ confidence.
            They believe Jesus is poised to take the earthly throne in Jerusalem like his ancestor David. They still think political and military victory is the answer to the lies and corruption of the empire, and they sense victory is at hand.  And like someone on a political campaign staff, the Sons of Thunder ask their candidate for the best jobs when he comes into power.
In essence, James and John want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They have been on the campaign trail for nearly three years. They have sacrificed their livelihood for this dark horse candidate. Their candidate is a terrible fundraiser, he keeps telling people to give their money to the poor and powerless, so they never had the luxury of even staying in a Motel 6.   
And now that they sense Jesus is on the cusp of victory, they see an opportunity. They see an ivory tower ahead. They want to secure the best seats in the house before the other disciples wise up and ask. Jesus goes on to explain that they do not know what they are asking. So, Jesus asks a question of his own, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 
In other words, are you able to suffer the same fate as me? Are you able to accept that God’s victory is found in the way of suffering and death, a way that makes the last first?” The Sons of Thunder naively respond, “We can accept that.” Even then, Jesus says, “to sit at my right and my left is not mine to grant but it is for those whom it has been prepared.” (Oddly enough, two criminals find themselves on Jesus’ left and right as he hangs on the cross in Calvary – I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)
            The other disciples are not too pleased with James and John – not because they think the question is inappropriate but because they wish they had thought of the question first. Sensing an internal fracture looming, Jesus calls them together and says for the seventh time, whoever wants to be great must become last…for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. 
            Keeping with the political campaign theme, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Likewise, the motto in the kingdom of God asks, Ask not what God’s kingdom can do for you but what you can do for God’s kingdom.” And for those sitting in the pews today, Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church.
            While these words are familiar, the statement is radical especially as we live in what many call a consumer culture. The culture we live in trains us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Whether we are conscious of it or not, so many of our decisions in life – at work, at home, at church – are based on the attitude – what am I going to get out of it? We are led to conclusions that say, “If it doesn’t impact my little sphere of being, then why is it my problem?” Even the best of us are hamstringed by this way of thinking. It’s called self-preservation.
            While a self-preservation attitude might help us hold onto our earthy goods and securities, it severely hinders our ability to pursue things heavenly, the things eternal. This kind of attitude turns us inward, it makes us self-absorbed, it hardens our hearts and blinds us to the needs of others, to the needs of the community, to the needs of God.
            God knows that self-preservation is the thorn in the side of the human heart and as God promised long ago, God will not abandon us to the self-serving and self-destructive agenda of the human heart. God will not leave us for dead. God is in the business of turning our hearts again and again toward God’s agenda of self-sacrificial love which is the way to abundant life. 
Ultimately, God turns our hearts toward this self-sacrificial love through the One who loved us even when it caused him public shame, unimaginable suffering, and a humiliating death on the cross between two criminals. Surely, no earthly leader would do this for his constituency.
            On the cross on Calvary, where our hearts are turned forever, we see the self-sacrificial love of Christ put the pursuit of power and control to shame, we see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ expose the pursuit of power and control as totally destructive. We see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ level the playing field and make room for everyone to have a place at the table in the kingdom of God – a table that puts the least, the last, and the lost first. On the cross, we see how God makes the first last and the last first. We see the victory of our God.
            And it is here, at the foot of the cross, where the kingdom of God comes into focus. It is here at the foot of the cross, the place where our Lord died because of us and for us, where we are given the grace to stop being so selfish, to stop asking, “What’s in it for me?” and start asking, “How can I help, how can I serve for the sake of the community, for the sake of the church, for the sake of the kingdom of God, for the sake of Jesus – our crucified Lord?” It is here where we are given the grace to finally stop pointing at ourselves and toward the One who died so the world would wake up to the way of eternal life.
            From a worldly, consumer-based culture perspective, Mary Katherine and the disciples are right, the way of the cross makes no sense at all. But as St. Paul famously wrote, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 
Ultimately, it is God’s hope that as we follow the way of the cross, we discover what our heart has been longing to know all along – the desire to be connected to something bigger than ourselves, the desire to be a part of a vision greater than our own, the desire to find a joy that cannot be bought or possessed or earned – only given by following the One who came not to be served but to serve. Amen.

Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Wrong. I'm Sorry. I Love You

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Even the Gospel writer knows this question isn’t really about divorce. Rather, the Pharisees want to see what political camp Jesus falls into and so they pick a hot button issue to test his temperature. Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? Is he a conservative or a liberal? Maybe even a Libertarian?!
Despite bumper stickers that say otherwise, Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican. While Jesus’ earthly ministry certainly confronts the political realm, and while some of the things he does might fall in line with a particular sect’s agenda, Jesus himself is bound by a higher platform – God’s platform – a platform that even the most noble of human institutions fail to live up to.
As we read along, we see that Jesus will not be baited into a question that seeks to divide rather than unite. Jesus knows the motives of the Pharisees are impure. Therefore, Jesus gets the Pharisees to answer the question for themselves which they were glad to do. But then Jesus reminds them that the law about divorce isn’t from God but was written because of humanity’s hardness of heart. 
Very subtly, Jesus changes the trajectory of the conversation from the legal grounds for divorce to God’s intention for humanity through marriage. Jesus recalls the passage that we read from Genesis today, a passage which begins by saying, “It is not good that man should be alone.” The purpose of marriage, and even more broadly, the purpose of God with usis to communicate – you are not alone – no matter what.
Finally, Jesus makes the point the Pharisees fail to comprehend. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” While humanity has spent much of its existence looking for ways to divide and separate, God has spent God’s life among us looking for ways to unite us and bring us back together. As Christians, we proclaim a God who reconciles us all through Christ crucified – the one who died for Republicans and Democrats and even Libertarians alike.
While the immediate context of today’s gospel lesson is marriage between two people, the bigger picture is the marriage between God and humanity. As Christians, we believe that through Jesus Christ, God has established a bond with humanity that can never be broken – not even the power of sin and the finality of death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
 It has been God’s intention from the very beginning that we live together in a common life that looks a lot like the vows we make in marriage, that we depend on each other for strength and encouragement and mutual joy, that we love each other in good times and in bad, that we raise our children to know the goodness and mercy of our all loving God.
Like with any marriage, our communal commitment to these promises begin strong but along the way our hearts are hardened, a scorecard gets kept, suspicions grow, indifference and apathy run rampant. We forget that we are meant for each other. We forget that we can’t do this without each other.
Suddenly, the conversation is reduced to why one party is guiltier than the other party. The conversation is reduced to finger pointing and blame shifting. In the process, we absolve ourselves from any wrong doing by pointing to laws that are not from the heart of God but laws that have grown out of our hardness of heart.
As a society, we would do well to remember some of the first things we learn in pre-marital counseling – at least I hope you learned this in premarital counseling. In case you didn’t or if you aren’t married, there are three critical phrases needed for a successful marriage, and they work best when they are said in this order: I was wrong; I am sorry; I love you.
Can you imagine the healing and reconciliation that would take place if we said these things to each other more often? Not just on a personal level but on a macro level? I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where saying these kinds of things is a sign of weakness. We live in a society where are told to never admit fault or apologize when we get into a car accident. We live in a society where saying, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you” can cost us a lot of money, a job, and even a reputation.
But as a preacher of God’s Word, I can tell you that saying these things will not cost you the kingdom of God. In fact, saying these three phrases will enlarge your vision of the kingdom of God. As the famous hymn proclaims, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: The body they might kill, but God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”
At the end of the day, saying, “I’m wrong. I’m sorry. I love you” is the essence of God’s law for humanity. While God does not expect perfection, God calls us back to perfection through the law fulfilled alone in Christ Jesus – the One who, on a cross constructed by hardness of heart, begs us to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
On the cross, Jesus changes the trajectory of the conversation. At the foot of the cross, none of us can say that we are justified according to the law. And if you can, then you must be Jesus. 
At the foot of the cross, how can we not say, “How long will we continue to destroy the image of God in the other? Aren’t we already broken enough? When will we realize that we need each other – that we need the goodness and mercy of God – and if not for our sakes, for the sake of the children? For the sake of the children, can we, as married couples and members of society alike, find the grace to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
Today’s lesson ends with Jesus becoming indignant toward the disciples for stopping the little children from coming forward. He says, “Whoever does not enter the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” In just a few minutes, our children will come into church during The Peace. They might cause a little disruption to the flow of things, but I invite you to see this disruption be an outward and visible sign that Jesus himself is disrupting the flow of things in our world.
Jesus is disrupting our pattern of self-righteous legalism. Jesus is disrupting our desire to keep the status quo, to maintain a philosophy that says – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Jesus is disrupting our desire to separate and divide in the name of self-justification and preservation.
Jesus is turning our attention toward the things that really matter, toward the kingdom of God – a place where the most vulnerable and powerless among us are lifted, a place where the giving of ourselves to God and to others is where true power is found – the power of God’s love.
No, Jesus was not a Democrat or a Republican or even a Libertarian. Jesus is Lord and Savior of all. And that Jesus calls us to live not according to the ideals of any earthly institution, rather according to the way of Jesus – a way that brings the kingdom of God into focus, a way that discovered and re-discovered when we find the grace to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
Following the way of Jesus, may all of us – Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian alike –find ourselves gathered in God’s kingdom, in God’s heavenly institution so that God can get on with God’s work of healing, reconciliation, and restoration of community. And, at the end of the day, may we all have reason to say, “therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Amen.  

Monday, October 1, 2018

Why Are You Here?

October 2018 Newsletter Article for Ascension on the Mountain

A question that I am frequently asked says, “Why did you want to become a priest?” While I wasn’t struck blind on the Road to Damascus like the Apostle Paul, I usually begin answering this question by sharing my first conversion story. I say first conversion story because I believe God is in the business of converting us toward the love Jesus again and again.

When I was ten years old my parents got a divorce. In addition to the divorce, both my parents were battling their own demons. Needless to say, I spent most of my adolescent years feeling lost. Thankfully, I found a place in the church through youth group.

When I was fifteen, my youth minister invited me to attend a summer mission trip called Towel Ministry which took place in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. At the halfway point of the trip, the Deacon in charge of the ministry held a healing service.

I had never attended a healing service before and was a little ambivalent about coming forward to receive prayers for healing. After what I can only describe as a nudge from the Holy Spirit, I found myself at the altar rail.

Deacon Chris Greer asked, “How can I pray for you tonight?” I responded, “My parents are struggling. I would like to ask prayers of healing for them.” He looked at me again, “I’m afraid you didn’t hear me. How can I pray for YOU?” No one had ever asked me that question. Tears rushed down my face, and I didn’t say anything because I was afraid to sound like a blubbering mess.

Chris anointed my forehead with healing oil, laid his hands upon my head, and began he prayer saying something like, “Gracious God, I ask prayers of healing for your beloved son Jack…” When the prayer was over, I stood up and felt lifted to life in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Suddenly, my life had a direction and a purpose rooted in the healing power of God’s love.

While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I know now this was my call to discipleship. In the same way Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve after she was healed, I felt called to serve after I was healed. Over the years, this story has become a frame of reference for my ministry in the church. Simply put, I knew I wanted to be a part of the ministry of healing and it just so happens that God called me to be a priest to fulfill that ministry.

This story is my invitation to ask you, “Why are you here?” “Why are you a member of Ascension?” “Why are you a follower of Jesus?” Your answer is not only important to me but also to other members of the congregation. The Christian fellowship is strengthened when we share with one another our life with God. We gain a sense of direction and purpose when we understand our collective story.

As a way to encourage this conversation, I will be organizing small group sessions to create space for these questions to be answered. I will be working with the Vestry and the staff to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be a part of these small group gatherings. While some of these conversations will take place at the church, I’d love the opportunity to meet in your homes. If you are willing to host a session, please let me know!

As you contemplate your answer, please don’t feel like it needs to be perfectly scripted. Just start talking and let the Holy Spirit move you to share your story with others who are hungry to share their story. For in the end, we are a people who are shaped by stories. In particular, we are shaped by the story of how God’s love invites us to know healing and wholeness through our Savior Jesus Christ. May God bless us and heal us as we discover how we are all a part of God’s story of love and redemption.

Love of People Before Ideas

During my seminary years, a couple of classmates of mine and I would often poke fun at the number of Episcopal priests who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their sermons. (Bonhoeffer was a pastor in the Confessing Church in Germany who opposed the Nazi Regime. Bonhoeffer was also involved in a plot to kill Hitler. He was found out and put in a concentration camp where he was later murdered by Nazi Germany.) We’d joke, “We’d be rich if we got a dollar for every time we heard the name Bonhoeffer used in a sermon.” And as newly ordained priests, we were quite proud of the fact we never quoted Bonhoeffer.
            At some point along the way, we actually started reading Bonhoeffer. Slowly we began talking to each other about his work. We all came to the same conclusions, “He’s really good.” So, now that I have given you my full disclosure statement, a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 
            In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” In case you were wondering, we would be up to $8 by now if we were in my seminary preaching pool.
            This quotation from Bonhoeffer describes perfectly the difficulty the disciples find themselves in today’s passage from Mark. Our lesson from Mark begins with the disciples reporting a copy-cat exorcist to Jesus. Using church lingo, Jesus’ disciples think they are the liturgical police, and they’ve caught someone breaking the rubrics in the prayer book.  I can see the disciples patting themselves on the back for catching this renegade exorcist red handed. 
The last shall be first teaching still hasn’t sunk in. While their intentions might have been honest, earnest, and sacrificial, the disciples miss the mark. They fail to understand that Jesus is more concerned with loving relationships than he is with religious traditions. And Jesus lets the disciples know it.
At first, Jesus is rather mild. He tells the disciples to give a cup of water, which is a gesture of encouragement, to those doing the Lord’s work. Jesus tells the disciples to support others in the work of ministry even if they do that work differently. 
Perceiving the disciples still don’t get what he is saying, Jesus hurls a few provocative images their way to help get their attention. He says it would be better to hang a 1,000-point weight around your neck and jump in a ditch than it would be to put a stumbling block in front of a new follower. Then Jesus gets on with the whole business of looping off limbs and throwing them to the place where the worm never dies.
            Once Jesus sufficiently makes his point, he concludes his teaching, “For everyone will be salted with fire. … Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t depend on the advancement of our great ideas or dreams, our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t need on our rigid attention to religious customs. 
            Rather, our formation in the kingdom of heaven relies on our willingness to be salted with fire, on our willingness to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit who takes us beyond our petty differences. For us today, in this Christian community, are we willing to let go of our short-sighted dreams and let the purifying love of Jesus open our eyes to God’s dream for community. Are we willing to let go of our way of doing things and let the love of Jesus add flavor to our life together? 
The formation of authentic Christian community begins and ends with love – the details of how that community is formed is worked out somewhere in between. Bonhoeffer said (that’s $10), “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy the community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” 
While I am still in full disclosure mode, I have another confession. I am a seven on the Enneagram. I am an Enthusiast and according to the Enneagram, a seven is prone to love ideas more than people. Therefore, today’s sermon is intended for me just as much as it is intended for you. 
Through this scripture, Jesus is reminding you and me that loving relationships build authentic community, loving relationships give rise to ideas that we didn’t know we could even dream. Even more, our all loving God already has a dream in mind for his beloved community – a dream God spoke into being through Creation, a dream fulfilled in Jesus. 
God’s dream looks like all the people of the earth living in peace with one another. And in a world that is severely torn and broken by sin and death and tribalism, that dream of peace is realized through a love that is concerned not with surrounding itself with the people who think and act alike but a love that is concerned with finding healing, reconciliation, and restoration among those who differ from us the most. 
When we pursue healing, reconciliation, and restoration, we put love of people before love of ideas and agendas. When we pursue the peace that God intends, our eyes our opened to just how dangerous love of ideas before people is.  
Because when we love our short-sighted version of the way the world should be before we love the people around us, we shut down the possibility of dialogue with those who think and do things differently than we do, we shut down the possibility of relationships that extend beyond likeminded people, we shut down the possibility of being able to listen without a predetermined agenda.
Ultimately, when we put ideas before people, we shut down the possibility of healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We close ourselves off to peace, to the dream of God – a dream that gathers a diverse group of people with a love that is meant for us all in the way of Jesus.  And this way of Jesus calls us to trust that love covers a multitude of sins. This way that Jesus calls us to trusts that love of God and love of people is where authentic community is born and nurtured. 
During the search process, I was asked, “What would be the first thing you would want to do if you became Rector at Ascension?” Being a seven on the Enneagram, a flood of ideas rushed to my head. However, I recalled my first days as Rector of St. Paul’s. A list of about twenty things floated around my desk for about the first year.
The more I got to know the people at St. Paul’s, the more I listened to their stories, the more I learned about the parish, the more I got involved in the community, the more irrelevant my list of ideas became. Finally, I tossed the list in the trash can.  If I remember correctly, only one of those twenty ideas ever gained any legs. Instead, by the grace of God, my list of ideas became our list of ideas, ideas born out of relationships, ideas that revealed God’s dream in our time and place.
With that being said, the first thing I want to do as your Rector is to get to know you, get to know this parish, get to know the needs of the larger community. Like I wrote in the newsletter, I want to know why you are here. What about Ascension excites you about participating in the dream of God? What about this place makes you feel like you belong to the community of God? 
It is my conviction that through this process of getting to know each other and our stories, God will reveal his dream for this community in this particular time and place. Like anything else we do in community, this process will take time. This process will require us to be intentional and mindful and discerning – a lot of listening. This process will require personal and communal prayer. Above all, this process will require us to love each other despite our differences of opinion.
For at the end of the day, our individual opinions, my opinions included, do not shape Christian community. In fact, individual opinions often destroy community. Rather, the truth of Christ in God, which is discerned by the entire community in worship, gives shape to authentic Christian community. 
            Friends, as we discern God’s dream for this community, may we never lose sight of the most important part of living in community, that is may we never lose sight of the truth that it is through God’s love alone, through God’s unwavering commitment to be in relationship with us that any of us find ourselves here today. Amen.