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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Temptation Narratives from the Perspective of Satan: A Monologue for the First Sunday in Lent

You’ve heard it said: If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again. But I say to you: If at first you DO succeed, why not capitalize on your success? At least, that’s how it started.

I will never forget that first time. It was so easy. And that surprised me. I figured with everything new and perfect, with the relationship between creature and Creator just beginning to blossom, coaxing those two away would be a challenge. But it wasn’t.

I could never really understand why God did it – “creation”, I mean. He had that perfect place – beautiful and harmonious – except for that one time, of course, and that was MY doing! Some folks said He was lonely. But how could God be lonely? I mean all those angels and archangels and seraphim and cherubim and principalities and powers; constantly singing the praises of the Deity. I sang right along, back in the day always a little under the pitch, always just behind the beat, always getting dirty looks from that goody-two-shoes Michael.

And there was always that One – always present, always quiet, just “there” at – which side was it? God’s right side, I think. Do I miss that place? Not much. Was my rebellion worth it? Of course it was. Of course it was….

But, I digress….

So there they were. In the middle of that garden. With that big tree. Everything in that garden was theirs for the taking – well, almost. Everything in that garden was theirs for the taking except for the fruit of that one tree. You’d have thought they’d be satisfied, and perhaps they were.

But you see, from my point of view it was just so tempting, and they don’t call me “Tester of Loyalties” for nothing! I just had to see what it would take to ruin it all. Well, it didn’t take much. Who knew a serpent, of all God’s creatures, could be so persuasive? And how did such a creature even get into that perfect setting in the first place…? Ah, that’s a story for another time.

Anyhow, as I said, it didn’t take much, and it didn’t take long. A little persuasion, a little reassurance that they wouldn’t actually die (whatever that even meant) a couple of quick and tasty bites. Then came the confrontation with their Creator; and that was the end of THAT perfect “paradise”! When those two understood that “naked” is what they were; when they were driven out, fig leaves and all; when they discovered what it does, in fact, mean to die; that’s when I knew I had them in the palm of my hand.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” God had tole them. Boy, did they ever! First came their two sons – nasty business!
Fratricide in an open field. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Evidently not.

They were just the first. And as time went on, I watched them fall like dominoes, generation after generation. (Oh, that golden calf was inspired!) Kings, rulers, generals, the common folk…even the so-called “faithful”,
could not resist what life with me promised.

And so it went, on and on and one. Until it all changed.

The One who had always been present, whom I remembered so vividly from my time in that other realm
arrived to walk this earth, not so different from anyone else, it appeared – but I knew what was up.

Born in a stable. Really? A stable? I tried hard to nip that in the bud. Just a little whisper in King Herod’s ear would surely do the trick. And it would have, too, if it weren’t for that busybody Gabriel and his late-night dream visitations.

So I waited. And waited. I waited until, of all things, the very Spirit of God set up the opportunity. “This is my Son, the Beloved” – now get thee into the wilderness.

And there He was, in the desert, fasting. All alone. Maybe he’d like some company. Surely I had him now, just like the two in that garden so long ago.

We hadn’t seen each other in so very long. I was well-fed and sassy; he was thin: gaunt and wasted. And that gave me my first idea.

“Here,” I said, “these stones. Surely you of all people can turn them into anything you want. Bread, perhaps? You must be famished.” But no, he would rather “live by God’s word”. Strike one.

So I took him with me to a place I don’t usually frequent – to the very house of God. To the highest point on the top of the temple. “Here,” I said, “look how high we are. Think how powerful you’d feel just gliding through the air. Why not jump? Surely you of all people can make the angels catch you before you hit the ground.” But no, he had no interest in testing the Deity that way. Strike two.

So I thought, and I thought; and finally it came to me. We went up to a mountain top - and from there we could see all the “kingdoms” of the world, all the places of power and wealth and undeserved privilege, where people had given me their souls and they didn’t even realize it. “Here,” I said, “look at all this influence, all these riches. Surely you of all people deserve to have all this; and I alone can give it to you.”

He looked me right in the eye. And I saw that I had underestimated this rival, and I knew I had lost. It was over.
For now. Strike three.

A lesser fallen angel might have quit right then and there. But quitting has never been my style. I have all kinds of patience. After all, I’ve got all the time in – well, in the world. At some point – who knows? There might even be another contest. But the world is a big place, it’s a troubled place, and if there’s one thing my experience has taught me, it’s this: There will always be others. Lots and lots of others.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Parable of the Snowflakes

It began to snow.

And some of the flakes fell in the river, whose still swiftly-moving current melted them immediately, incorporating them back into their source.

Some fell on sidewalks and driveways, where they achieved a certain level of accumulation until snowplows, shovels, blowers, and salt shoved, brushed, and melted them away; or stomping feet packed them into treacherous icy masses.

Some landed on streets, where vehicles quickly smashed them flat, or created ruts, or combined them with exhaust fumes to make gray, ugly slush.

But some snowflakes fell on the soft grass of yards, fields, and parks, where layers of white fluffiness delighted the eye and where the playful, young and old, enjoyed winter sports and built and adorned snow figures.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Sent Forth" - a free-verse poem inspired by Luke 10

(Note: this was preached as a sermon at Christ Church, Waukegan, IL on July 7)

Lord, you sent out laborers into the harvest: seventy of them,
two by two for protection, convenience, companionship.
After all, who knows more than you the lonely work of kingdom building?

You sent them, your followers, ahead of you as messengers.
Like John the Baptist they, too, would herald your way
in the cities, towns, villages,  and in the houses of Galilee.

“The harvest is plentiful,” you said, “but the laborers are few.”
They caught your sense of urgency; they were eager.

Yet when they signed on with you,
did any of them know the rules of the road? And if they had,
would they have gone along, right then and there, as they did?

You say to them: “Leave it all behind.”
No purse, no bag, no sandals; not even a change of clothes.

What else was it you said?
“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” -
which is exactly why your instructions to them were so precise:
“Greet no one on the road.”
No small talk! No distractions!
You told them what to say, where to go, where to stay (or not stay),
how and when to eat.

You even gave them permission to give up, to move on,
to know that any place they weren’t welcome,  they needn’t stay.

And so, outfitted with instructions  and your blessing and very little else,
out they went, those 35 loyal pairs,
bearers of your kingdom message treading the Galilean countryside.

And if they proclaimed peace to a house along the way,
and were welcomed there, and peace was shared,
and peace remained,
then a meal could be shared as well.
And in some places, maybe, just maybe,
even demons were cast out and people healed,
just because your disciples were there, in that place,
to share your Good News.

But if they proclaimed your peace elsewhere
and were not welcomed there,
you told them their peace would return to them!
Is that where peace goes when it’s been rejected?
Does it circle around like a boomerang and return to its source,
strong as ever, ready to be shared again?

And so they should move on, you told them,
shaking even the dust of that place off their feet.

But maybe, just maybe, when they returned
basking in the flush of euphoria and success
they forgot, for only a moment,
 an all-too-human moment,
that the work of building your Kingdom 
did not originate or depend on them;
that it was not their own victorious enterprise;

That “success” in your kingdom is not determined
by quotas,  or numbers, or works,
but by faithfulness;
that curious kingdom of God;
a kingdom so unlike those the world knows all too well,
those kingdoms based on human power and monetary riches;
but rather, a kingdom of love, justice, and peace.

And Lord, now we are the ones you send out,
as laborers into the harvest:
so many more than seventy
one by one and two by two and dozen by dozen.

We are the heralds of your gospel now.
Inside these walls, each week, you feed us with yourself,
and then you send us out:
“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we say.

The world has changed but your message has not:
The harvest is still oh, so plentiful!
the laborers, though many more than 70,
are still oh, so few!
And our roads, our Galilees are
paved streets and city sidewalks,
suburban cul-de-sacs,
playgrounds, schools, offices, neighborhoods.

What would the rules of the road be nowadays, Lord?
Take no smart phone, no tablet, no GPS, no debit card –
nothing that distracts us from the work at hand.
And our distractions are oh, so many!
Is that what you would tell us?

And how would we, how could we,
so independent, so cautious, so fearful of vulnerability,
ever be content to depend on the kindness of strangers,
or be willing to risk rejection?

You ask us, as you asked them, to be both vulnerable and wise:
“See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves.”
Sometimes, Lord, it’s hard to tell the difference.
Wolves abound even among your followers,
some of whom are far too quick to judge and much too slow to love;
some of whom are far too sheepish,
too timid, too fearful of the wrong things;
so your message of love languishes for want of charity,
your mandate of justice for lack of courage.

We, your church, are
fearful for our future,
confused by our loss of status in the world,
reluctant to talk “religion” with strangers or sometimes even friends.

Lord, take our anxieties, and bathe them in your peace,
that peace you have so graciously given us:
peace to keep, and to share.

And when we do go to share your peace, Lord,
keep us from fear of rejection;
help us to remember that peace shared
is always better than peace withheld–
your perfect peace that cannot be contained.

And help us to remember,
when our efforts do yield results
when the harvest is plentiful, as you promised,
when we, who no longer believe that illness is caused by demons,
still fall victim to that flush of euphoria –
“Look what we’ve accomplished,” we proudly say -
when maybe, just maybe, we, too, forget that
our work in your name is not our own successful enterprise,
but is instead a sign of your kingdom.

When we, who are used to being rewarded for a job well done
forget, if only for a moment, that
our fine facilities,
our committees and our classes
our budgets and even our liturgies
are neither products of our own good work
nor commodities to be marketed;
when we forget, if only for a moment,
Who has sent us, and why,

When all those things tempt us, then help us recall
that success in that kingdom,
your curious kingdom,
is not determined by quotas,
or numbers, or works,
but by faithfulness.

Lord, give to your Church the eagerness of your first disciples.
Turn our fear into longing for the just, loving world we know can be possible
because  it is the world you so desire,
the world you have promised, for all of creation.
Remove our complacency, Lord;
energize us for the work you have given us to do.

Give us wisdom to find our Galilees;
and give us courage and faith to proclaim your kingdom;
that curious kingdom of God,
a kingdom unlike any other,
not based on human power and monetary riches;
but rather, a kingdom of love, justice, and peace.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Way of Love: Rest

Rest: Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, & restoration
Of all the practices named in The Way of Love, this one might be the most difficult to achieve. We know that God ordained this practice in the first creation account (Genesis 2:2-3); I don’t think this means God put his feet up, closed his eyes, and fell asleep (the fact that the Creator needed rest is, I suppose, something to contemplate!) I think it’s more likely God wanted a chance to enjoy the divine handiwork, with satisfaction and without distraction; to set aside time to revel delightedly in the newly-minted universe and all its wonders as they unfolded. (Remember, this is the first creation account – no “forbidden fruit” here!) And in “[blessing] the seventh day and [hallowing] it”, God has given us both an example and a directive: as beings created in the divine image, it is God’s intention that we take time to set aside work, cares, and stress, thus allowing ourselves to draw closer to God and to enjoy and appreciate God’s gifts to us.

But setting aside the things that keep us physically, mentally, and emotionally busy is easier said than done! Some of us work too hard. Some of us lie awake at night worrying about…all kinds of things. Some of us allow stress to occupy our minds to the point where joy and relaxation seem like foreign countries. The burdens of life can make us restless creatures. St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) knew something about restlessness. In his Confessions, he wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” God’s desire for his creatures is that we give over our restlessness, cares, worries and enter the heart of the Holy Trinity, where we find perfect love, pure joy, and ongoing re-creation. May you be gifted with the grace of God, the peace of Christ, and the restoration of the Holy Spirit,

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Way of Love: Go

Go: Cross boundaries, listen deeply, & live like Jesus
Jesus was on the move – a lot! He expected his followers to be on the move, as well, sending the disciples out during his early ministry (Matt.10:7-11, Mark 6:7ff, Luke 9:1-6) and again after his resurrection (Matt.: 28:16-20, Mark 16:15) – not to mention all those times they were on the move in his company! Jesus was not afraid to cross boundaries. He didn’t just stay in Jewish communities, with his own people. His travels, whether crossing the Sea of Galilee or walking overland, often took him into gentile territory, and he didn’t restrict his healings to his own people either. He drove demons from a man in Gerasene, healed the young daughter of the Syro-Phoenician (Canaanite) woman, and the slave of a Roman centurian. But it wasn’t only geographic or religious boundaries that Jesus crossed; he made short work of social and cultural divisions too. He made room for “the outcast and sinner”, adding a tax collector to his inner circle, allowing a woman of dubious repute to bathe and anoint his feet, welcoming a woman to sit at his feet and learn just like the men around her did. Our savior listened to the needs of those around him; he heard them, heard their stories. Jesus loved the unlovable, touched the untouchable, forgave the unforgivable, and embraced those whom society had rejected. He created family out of unrelated persons and built community by bringing unlikely strangers together. Finally, he crossed the ultimately boundary, bringing new life from death.

How can we use Jesus’ examples of crossing boundaries and listening deeply in order to live like him? We start by looking for him and seeing him – in the stranger, the one who offends us, the person we’d prefer to ignore, or even someone close to us whom we’ve begun to take for granted. We start by paying rapt attention to the stories of those whom we encounter. We start by relinquishing our fear of the other. We needn’t travel far, physically, in order to “Go”. We simply have to say to Jesus, with an open heart, “Hear I am; send me”.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Way of Love: Bless

I admit I’ve never been a huge fan of the “Mitford” novels by Jan Karon. But I have read enough of them to remember that each morning the local rector, Tim Cavanaugh, asks God to help him “be a blessing to someone today”. It’s not a bad prayer. In the Way of Love in the Jesus Movement, there are numerous ways that each and every one of us can be a blessing to others. “Unselfishly give and serve” calls to mind the baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, loving the neighbor as the self. Sometimes, the act of blessing another is obvious: listening to a friend in need, donating to an organization whose work makes the lives of others better, taking a meal to someone recovery from hospitalization are examples of that. But sometimes, the smallest gesture, smile, or greeting, even to a stranger on the street, can make a difference in someone’s life. And as difficult as it can be, sharing with another the impact and change that faith has made in your life and the transformative power of God’s love in Christ, can lead a struggling person into a new path of hope and community. We have a powerful, life-altering, world-changing story to tell – and that’s a blessing!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Way of Love: Worship

Worship: Gather in community weekly to thank, praise, & dwell with God
Something wonderful happens when the people of God gather in worship. Whether it’s a small congregation, a crowded cathedral, or the main Eucharist at General Convention; whether the occasion is joyful, mournful, or penitential, coming together as followers of Jesus reminds us that we are indeed the body of Christ in the world (not just in the Church) and that Christianity is very much a communal faith. We are not on this journey by ourselves; in fact, we need one another. The word worship originated in the Old English expression “worth ship”. Our worship seeks to give to God what is worthy of God, as best we can. In our tradition we refer to worship services as liturgy, from Greek words meaning “the public work of the people” (note that word, public). Worship, liturgy, is a two-way street, in which there is always communion of some kind between God and God’s people. And though certain persons – clergy, other ministers, musicians – have specific roles, everyone present is meant to be an active participant. There are no bystanders in the church’s worship of God! When someone is missing, the body is incomplete.

One of my favorite hymns is “We the Lord’s people” (#51 in The Hymnal 1982). The text is by John E. Bowers and the second stanza, in particular, describes what our worship gatherings are meant to be, and how they help draw us closer to God: “school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary”. Perhaps, from time to time, church has been each of those things for you. It certainly has for me! Out of this text arise two questions: What do we bring to worship? What do we take away from it?