A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Festival of Homiletics - Day 1 - Letting Go

I'm spending this week in Atlanta, Georgia at the 24th annual Festival of Homiletics, a workshop/conference by, for, and about preachers and preaching sponsored by Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. The opening worship service was held Monday evening at the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, a 7700-member church with a beautiful campus and lovely, state-of-the-art facilities.

The preacher was Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. She took us into the resurrection narrative in John 20. In fact, the entire liturgy was structured around Easter - we sang "Jesus Christ is risen today", the gospel was festooned with Alleluias - and it was odd to have a liturgy structured for Easter morning the day after Pentecost. But as Anna explained, the week we were embarking on was less about continuing education than about resuscitation for preachers (which drew applause); hence the emphasis on resurrection.

So into that early morning on the first day of the week she took us, explaining that Mary Magdalene is the real preacher in this account, just as she is the apostle to the apostles ("she's the one who shows up; she's the one who was sent"). But first, she simples has to be there, weeping and sitting with her grief. Anna played with the scenario of the "missing" body of Jesus in light of change, of new ways of looking at some of our dearly held habits, customs, interpretations. On Mary's desperation at finding the tomb empty, and interrogating first the angels, then the gardener (wink, wink): "when the Jesus you  know doesn't stay put, someone is to blame."

Of course, when the gardener speaks Mary's name and she recognizes him as Jesus, she wants to embrace him, cling to him. Anna calls Jesus' response -"do not hold on to me" - the first post-resurrection teaching. It's a lesson for all of us who seek to proclaim the gospel in new ways for different contexts, as we struggle not to hold on to and pass on comfortable messages, but go from our own encounters with the risen Christ to share the radical hope of the gospel.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's in a Number?

Decades ago my parents moved themselves and their baby daughter from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio. During the intervening years, our family, then later my widowed mother, moved two more times, both times within a close enough radius that we could keep the same phone number.

We started out on a party line – one of my parents would pick up the phone to make a call (I was too young to use a phone then) and hear someone else having a conversation. Fortunately that soon stopped. We went from a letter prefix for our exchange (“BE”) to the corresponding numerals (“23”). We started out dialing “0” for the Operator when we needed to make a long-distance call; over time that was replaced direct dialing, and our number got a three-digit prefix, the area code. The Bell Telephone monopoly ended, and we had our choice of carriers.

Over the years that phone line flowed into basic black rotary dial instruments, larger and smaller wall phones, the “princess” model (I never did get one of my own in my bedroom!), push button phones, and cordless.

And the conversations that phone line knew! My little self, talking with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. My teenage self, waiting for a boy to call, or commiserating with girlfriends when he didn’t. My college student self, calling because I was homesick, or needed money or advice on a life-altering decision. No answering machines, no voicemail, no caller ID. You answered the phone – or didn’t – and took your chances. You called, and had to decide how long to wait before giving up and hanging up.

That phone line shared good news and bad. I was home alone as a teen when a call came in from my uncle in Georgia telling me that my grandmother had died. From that phone I called the friends my parents were visiting that afternoon and from that phone told my father that his mother was no longer with us. Years later, my mother called to tell me that her mother had died. Many years after that, from that same number, she called my family and me three states away to tell us that we needed to come to Columbus sooner rather than later for Christmas break if we wanted to see my father before he died. I dialed that number to tell my parents, twice, that grandchildren were on the way, and twice that those grandchildren had arrived.

Recently my mother moved into a nursing home. She has her own private phone in her room, but she’s just far enough outside the radius of her former residence to have had a new phone number assigned. I’m actually amazed at how quickly I’ve been able not only to memorize that new number, but to have conditioned my brain to think of it when I pick up my phone to call her – after all, old habits die hard. I doubt I’ll ever forget the old number, though (every so often I’m tempted to call it just to see if it’s been re-assigned yet) – after all, that old number was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. That’s what’s in a number: memories, relationships, history, and most of all the substance, significant and otherwise, of the living of ordinary lives. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Burning Questions

The story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), which is the Hebrew scripture lesson for Lent 3-C for those using the Revised Common Lectionary, is a fairly well known one and rich with meaning. Moses, alone with Jethro’s flock at Mt. Horeb, sees a bush that is blazing yet impervious to the usual effect of fire on plant life. He decides he must look at it; that is, until he hears the voice of God telling him that he stands on holy ground and the voice self-identifies as the God of Moses’ own ancestors, ancestors that until that moment he may not have actually known he had. At that point, Moses turns away.

But a conversation ensues, and Moses is given a mission. At that point the reluctant prophet asks two questions of this holy Presence, questions that echo through the long history of divine/human relationship. Stated simply, they are: “Who am I?” and “Who are You?”

Granted, Moses’ Who am I is more of a “Why me?” After all, he had assumed he was part of the royal house of Egypt, having been raised by Pharaoh’s daughter for almost all of his life – why would he be expected to deliver those whom his people had enslaved? But in this exchange God gives Moses back his true identity: he is a son of the Hebrew patriarchs, a member of the very race his adoptive family has oppressed, and God has chosen him for the important task of leading his people – his true people – to freedom. And God will not abandon him, but will be with him and his people and give them a sign: they will worship God on the very mountain where this conversation is taking place.

Then comes the second question. If Moses is to have any credibility with the Hebrew people, he must be able to tell them who, exactly, is the God who has called him out. It’s one thing to say “the God of your ancestors”, but what is God’s name? (Remember, the ancient near east was rife with deities, all of whom had names. It was important to know to and of whom one was speaking!) God’s answer here is frustratingly non-committal – “I am who I am” – frustrating, that is, until we recall what Moses would learn (and what Yul Brynner, in The Ten Commandments, would ultimately give voice to): God is God. There are, there can be, no others. “I am has sent you.”*

“Who am I?” “Who is God?” These are burning questions that the journey of faith seeks to answer. They are neither easily nor readily resolved, and can only be truly and finally answered through ongoing relationship with the Creator.

*In Mark’s gospel (6:47-52), when Jesus comes walking across the water toward his disciples as they struggle in a boat against “an adverse wind”, he tells them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Some scholars have identified the phrase “it is I” in the original Aramaic to be more properly translated “I am.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Healing Hymn for Advent

In my parish we do the healing rite (anointing, laying-on-of-hands, prayers) on the third Sunday of each month; this month that coincides with the Fourth Sunday of Advent. I was looking for an Advent-themed healing hymn. Finding none, I wrote my own text, adapting "Savior of the Nations" (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland ).

Healer of the Nations

Healer of the nations, draw near, 
show’r us with your presence here.
Bring your Spirit’s healing touch, 
balm to those who suffer much.

In your birth our human form
was with God’s own grace adorned.
Mortal flesh you did not loath. 
As your creatures, you were clothed.

In your life, you healed the sick,
and cast out the demon’s trick.
You raised back to life again
those whom death had sought to claim.

In your death you suffered sore,
taunted, flogged, the cross you bore. 
Yet the tomb could not contain
God’s Salvation, now made plain.

Lord, who knew our grief and pain:
raise us to new life again. 
Heal, renew, revive, restore.
Be our comfort evermore.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Waters of Baptism, Thicker Than Blood

In this week's gospel (Mark 3:20-35, RCL), Jesus “redefines” family. And that’s important for the church to understand, because local churches often think of themselves in familial terms without actually making it clear that we are a different kind of family; that lack of clarity is risky. For people wounded by their families of origin, or by divorce or abandonment, the idea of church as family can be very off-putting. For people whose families were havens of comfort and a refuge from the world, the idea of church as family can create expectations that the church was not created to meet. For those reasons I’m very careful how I describe the church, and family is not a word I use often. Christ’s church must always be a place where all are welcome, and where those who commit to following Christ become brothers and sisters regardless of how little else they may have in common. “Blood is thicker than water”, we say. That may be true of ordinary water; but blood is never thicker than the waters of baptism, where we all who desire to follow Christ and do the will of God become part of the household of God. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Place Where We Live

Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptizer are the first disciples called in the gospel of John. Jesus, aware that they are following him, turns back and asks them what they are looking for. “Rabbi, (meaning teacher)” they reply, “where are you staying?” Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

The particular word for “staying” that is used when Andrew and his friend ask that question is the Greek word μένεις. In addition to stay, this word can also mean remain, or live, or dwell; it can be translated last, endure, or continue. But throughout the gospels, when that word is used, it is very often translated as “abide”.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” Where do you abide?

Months later, when Andrew and that other disciple sit around a table in an upper room in Jerusalem with other followers of Jesus, hearing him talk about vines and branches, perhaps they would realize that their initial question to Jesus, as well as his answer, had much deeper significance than simply a home address somewhere near the River Jordan and that their initial encounter with him had led them far beyond a domestic location and into a new way of life that defied not only the physical boundaries of a home or an inn, but also religious, social, and cultural boundaries as well. The place where they and their fellow disciples abide at this point in time is not like anything they could have imagined when they began this journey.

Jesus has opened up a whole new life to them: “life on the vine”. Life on the vine would be disciplined, sacrificial, selfless, but ultimately fruitful and rewarding. Life on the vine would require a willingness to let God be in control, to let God prune away anything and everything that might stand in the way of full and complete commitment to the new way of being and of relating to God and one another that Jesus had come to inaugurate. Life on the vine, life in Christ, would also mean having a new place to live: not only where to abide; but also how to abide.

The word abide is used eight times in these eight verses. As Christians we abide in Christ, we abide in God and so naturally, logically, we also abide in one another. We stay, we remain, we endure, we continue, because this is where we Christians are called to live.

God is love. Fearless, bold, perfect, abiding love. It’s the love made flesh and blood in the selfless love of God’s son Jesus; it’s the love that pulls us back when we lose our way and forget where it is that we live. It’s good to remember that. We have a home. No matter how bad life gets, or how good life gets, we have a place to abide in the God who is love. Regardless of where our lives happen to be at the moment, our home is in and with God. That’s where we live. That’s also where we meet others who may, on the surface, appear to be nothing at all like us but who become our brothers and sisters in love.

When we baptize someone we welcome that new Christian into both the local and the larger Church by saying “We receive you into the household of God.” In other words, you have a new home now. You abide in God; you have entered a community of love. From now on, we say, no matter what happens this is where you live. This is your “real” estate: a home in the place God calls us all to be; where we experience the abiding presence of love, the beloved community that Christ created for us. And when we do, no matter where we find ourselves in this world or what shape our life takes, the place where we live is the place where God’s love abides, and where we abide in it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Going Gently Into Lent

We think of Lent as many things: a journey; a time of discipline, solemnity and self-denial; a time to engage in self-examination, to prepare for the joy of Easter and resurrection. Whatever we may have decided to do to mark this season, we enter it hoping to carry it all the way through to the end. After all, if Jesus could spend 40 days and nights in the wilderness fasting, praying, and resisting the temptation to “be God” or to test God, the least we who follow him can do is give up chocolate, pray more, and try to stick it out until the Great Vigil. Praying more and being diligent with our chosen disciplines are good things; I’ll leave it to you to deal with your chocolate.

But do we ever think of Lent in terms of being gentle? Here’s a pitch for observing a “gentle Lent”. Not that we should just sit back, relax, and let spiritual practices slide. But there are practices that might make the keeping of a gentle Lent productive, meaningful, and spiritual.

Be gentle with others. Who is in need of a kind word, a helping hand; a donation of some kind, monetary or material; a shoulder to cry on, an ear ready to listen? Who needs the kind of help and support that only you can give? Make yourself available. Where is that person with whom you’ve had a misunderstanding, or an argument that goes unresolved? Make every effort to make peace with that person, remembering that the mission of the Church is reconciliation both with God and one another. It’s so easy to indulge in the very human tendency to judge another person, consciously or not, because of something that person cannot help or simply because of who that person is. Such thoughts can slip so easily into our minds. Remember that God’s grace, love, and mercy extend to all. No exceptions. Be gentle with others.

Be gentle with the creation. Buy only what is needed. Less consumption means less waste. Recycle whenever possible. Become an ethical and sensitive user and consumer; keep in mind your carbon footprint. Get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with God’s world. Remember that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Be gentle with the creation.

Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people. Look to the needs of your neighbors; what can you do to meet those needs? Work for cooperation and understanding among those of different religions, different races, different backgrounds, doing whatever can be done to eliminate stereotypical thinking, for we are all children of God. Pray for peace, advocate for justice, be proactive in showing compassion to the hungry, the homeless. Where you have been blessed with abundance, give something back. Remember: Isaiah reminds us of the fast that God finds acceptable: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Focus more on the common good, and less on individual salvation, because Christ has already taken care of that second item. Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people.

And finally, be gentle with yourself. This may be the most difficult of all, because we all tend to have blinders on when it comes to both our strengths and our weaknesses; and because even though being gentle with oneself may sound as though we’re taking permission to be lax about our Godly habits, the truth is that we tend to be inappropriately and inaccurately hard on ourselves, rather than too easy. And so as Paul reminds us, first and foremost let us be reconciled to God, for Christ’s sake. Strengthen your relationship with God in prayer. Relinquish the need for control – of others, of oneself, and of God and God’s purposes. There is tremendous stress associated with the need for control. Like that ubiquitous song from Frozen reminds us, “Let it go!” Accept your complete and utter dependence on God, and be grateful for the love that God shows us; because with God we have everything we need. God gives us the gift of community; so if there is any self-denial to be engaged in, let it be the denial of individualism - the self-centered tendencies we all have to rely on ourselves and our own strength, which serves to isolate us from God and from one another. Be gentle with yourself.

What will each of us do with these next 40 days? How will we spend our time and energy between now and the Great Vigil of Easter; and most important, how will our choices shape the way we live our lives far, far beyond that?