Sunday, November 24, 2013

'You Got the Power to Let Power Go?' (Christ the King Sunday) Luke 23:33-43

Luke 23:33-43
Church of the Nativity
Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentecost)
November 24, 2013

I think a helpful way to unpack Christ the King Sunday is to talk about a scene from the movie Schindler’s List.  Have you all seen it?  Well, whether you have or not, there is a scene in the film where Oskar Schindler--the German Gentile who was so instrumental in saving countless German Jews during Hitler’s awful reign--is talking about power with an an SS officer.  You see the SS officer had been brutally murdering countless Jews--showing no mercy at all--in order to demonstrate to them and his fellow soldiers that he was powerful.  Schindler--a reputable and powerful businessman--tells the barbaric and power-hungry--yet ultimately insecure--official that real power “is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, [the Emperor] lets him go… That’s power. That is power.”  

The similarities between Schindler’s advice to the SS officer and what happens in this morning’s Gospel lesson are very interesting.  For in Luke 23 we have something of a parallel story.  We have that famous scene where Jesus cries out on behalf of his murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.”  We have a king, albeit not in a traditional position of power, granting pardon to the worthless--those who reject, mock, and murder an innocent.  Like the insecure, power-seeking SS officer who later does indeed take Schindler’s advice, Jesus essentially says to the truly worthless, “I pardon you.”  

Don’t forget that he does this after he has been tried and scourged.  His own people have borne false witness against him, and the religious leaders have identified him as a seditious blasphemer.  It is also important to note that only the worst criminals were crucified on the place called Skull.  And here he is, the religious leaders and government authorities conspiring together to have him killed in the most inhumane of ways--naked on a cross of wood.

Friday, November 22, 2013

I Believe in the Resurrection (Luke 21:5-19, 20-28)

I Believe in the Resurrection
Luke 21:5-19 (20-28)
St. Thomas' Memorial Church
November 17, 2013

By now you’ve all heard of the devastation that Typhoon Yolanda unleashed on the Philippines a little more than a week ago.  A storm that some have called the worst in recorded history, where 10,000 are feared to be dead and over 100,000 displaced.  Maybe you’ve seen some of the images and videos of entire cities flattened, of families separated, of corpses piled by the roadside.  It’s hard to imagine what must be going through the minds of those living in the cities affected.  Shock, fear, despair?  Because I am so far removed from it and am going about my everyday life just the same, it’s hard for me to internalize it.  It’s hard for me to realize that not only have hopes and dreams been shattered, but--more basic, more fundamental--livelihoods have become undone.  Great buildings, great cities, strong towers have--unthinkably--been brought low.  Families and friends are separated, possibly never to be reunited.

This morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke describes a similar story.  It opens with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem at the Temple.  He’s been teaching here for over a chapter.  All of his previous arguments and rhetorical traps have been set in the Temple; these detailed discussions of the most Jewish of issues have been conducted in that most Jewish of places, the place one could encounter God in a special way.  A few verses earlier, a faithful woman, both widowed and impoverished, threw her whole life into the Temple treasury and Jesus was impressed.

And now this morning’s Gospel lesson tells us that some of the people with Jesus look up and speak in awe of the beauty of the Temple, the center of the Jewish world.  And rightly so, for the the Temple was stunning.  The Temple was huge.  The outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people, and at festival times it held crowds nearly that large.  The Temple was overwhelming as is fitting to the building that honors the God who alone is God.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Count the Cost (The Cross is Too Heavy) Luke 14:25-33

Count the Cost (The Cross is too Heavy)
Luke 14:25-33
St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church
September 8, 2013

What does our Gospel lesson mean?  “Hate your mother and father, your wife and children, your sisters and brothers.” I took a bus home this weekend to be with my family for the funeral of my grandmother. I got to see my mother and father, my brother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins.  My own flesh and blood.  The people closest to me in the world.  The only people in this dog-eat-dog world who will have my back no matter what.  And the text I’m supposed to preach on when I get back says that if I want to be Jesus’ disciple I must hate each and every one of them.  

I didn’t admit it to myself until a few days ago, but I’m offended by this text.  Why would the “Prince of Peace,” the one who “so loves the world” talk this way?  This is a shocking passage.  If it doesn't scandalize you--if it doesn't offend you--then you aren’t reading it correctly.  It goes against the core values of this and every generation.  It’s meant to be in your face.  It’s meant to be offensive.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fleming Rutledge on Wrath

In light of the hullabaloo over the PCUSA's decision to reject the contemporary hymn/praise song "In Christ Alone," I give you Fleming Rutledge's reflection on the Wrath of God.

*Note: when Rutledge says (capital-S) Sin she is not talking about individual (lower-case-s) sins. She's speaking of the power of Sin and Death that is in opposition to God.

"God's Wrath is against Sin, not against us.  We experience the Wrath of God in the form of all the terrible things that happen, but if we listen carefully to Paul's story, we learn that this Wrath is not God's bad temper, as if he were an irritable parent prone to rages, but his implacable opposition to the evil Power that holds his creatures in bondage.  God's enmity toward Sin is not capricious or malign.  It is the face of God turned steadily and with unshakable purpose toward the Enemy of his creation.  Thus it is possible for us to acknowledge our own identity as sinful creatures and yet, at the same time, rejoice to know that God is on our side against our common Foe."

Fleming Rutledge in Not Ashamed of the Gospel, "But Now..." 72, 73.

Update: For a more complete view of her understanding of the Wrath of God, check out:

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kohelet: Eccentric Sage of Pleasure and Pain (Ecclesiastes 1;2,12-14; 2:18-23 & Luke 12:13-21)

"Kohelet: Eccentric Sage of Pleasure and Pain"
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21
Church of the Nativity, Episcopal
August 4, 2013

“Vanity of vanities...
all is vanity.”

“Absurdity of absurdities...
all is absurd.”

“Transience. Transience...
all is transient.”

The Christian tradition does not have much to say about the book of Ecclesiastes. This is not so hard to believe as I would wager that most contemporary Christians continue to avoid it. How are preachers to give their people good vibes with an opening verse like, “Vanity of vanities... all is vanity.” How are we supposed to pump people up saying, “Absurdity of absurdities!... All is absurd!”?

The Teacher, or Kohelet in the Hebrew, is the most eccentric of the sages. The more popular Old Testament book of wisdom--the book of Proverbs--was written by wise men that are more in tune with our religious sensibilities. The sayings that are found in Proverbs are often profound, even at times surprising, but they never shock the pious. Kohelet, on the other hand, is provocative. One can imagine people walking away from a session with him shaking their heads, no longer certain just what to believe. Kohelet is the sage of shock and awe--in your face, offensive, profound.        

With that said, for obvious reasons this book has had a special appeal to young people. Some of you may have seen a CNN article this week about why young people--or, Millennials--are quitting the church. Rachel Held Evans, the author of the piece, says that one of reasons youth are staying away is because of the inauthenticity in church culture. There may be something to her diagnosis, maybe not, but if there’s one thing the book of Ecclesiastes has never been faulted for it’s lack of authenticity.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shameless Persistence (Luke 11:1-13)

"Shameless Persistence"
Luke 11:1-13 (and Genesis 18:20-32)
Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church
July 28, 2013

I don’t pray as often as I should. After reading passages of Scripture like this morning’s Gospel lesson, I sometimes wonder why I don’t. I suspect that my own laziness has something to do with it. Some mornings I simply do not want to get out of bed in the morning until I absolutely have to. I also think that my love of distraction keeps me away from prayer. I don’t think I fully realized this until I got a smartphone. Whenever boredom threatens, I pull out my Android to fend off the boredom monster. Whenever I start to pray, whatever might be happening on the internet, Facebook, or Youtube suddenly becomes ten times more interesting. Finally, my propensity to be a busy-body also gets in the way of me and God. I’m always in so much of a rush running out the door in the morning, that I simply don’t take the time to have a conversation with God--to be still before the Lord.  

But there also times that I’m not lazy or bored, distracted or busy, and yet I’m still unwilling to set time aside to bring myself before the Savior. Over the course of this week I’ve wondered about this. Is my limited prayer life due to an implicit lack of faith? Is it that I don’t believe in the power or the efficacy of prayer? Unfortunately, I think the answer is often yes. To put it in the words of this this morning’s lesson, sometimes I simply do not trust that if I ask, I’ll receive, that if I search, I’ll find, that if I knock, the door will be opened to me.      

Well, if you couldn’t guess it from the opening, this morning’s Gospel lesson is about prayer. It is made up of three parts: (1) a model prayer (2) a parable on prayer (3) and some sayings on prayer.  I’m going to take a brief look at all three parts and hopefully we’ll find out more about the character of our God and just what exactly is his attitude toward the prayers of his beloved, namely you and me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Cross is Sufficient (Colossians 1:15-28)

“The Cross is Sufficient”
Colossians 1:15-28
St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church


This morning’s lesson from the Epistle to the Colossians is dense. It’s jam-packed with what you might call theological gold. I’m only going to focus on one of its themes. In fact, I’m going to narrow it down to one verse--verse twenty-four.  In it the author of Colossians writes that in his suffering, Paul is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”  A few years ago I heard a famous Christian public figure at a large gathering say that this passage is “almost heresy.”  The people listening to this speaker looked confused.  “How can you say it’s ‘almost heresy?’  It’s Paul. It’s the Bible.”  I was right there with them wondering the same thing.
Over the course of the two thousand year history of the Church, Christians have interpreted this passage—that Paul was “completing what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions”—in different ways.  Some have come to the conclusion that Paul—and, therefore, we—“complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” through our good works.  Christ’s afflictions—or the Cross—gets us most of the way toward peace with God, but we—of course—have to do our part to bridge the remaining gulf.
I still hear people talk like this today.  In the hospital whenever I talk to a patient who does not have much time to live, they tell me that they hope they’ve lived a good enough life to make it to heaven when they die.  This is the way of salvation by grace plus works.  It’s not that any of these patients would deny the power of the Cross, they simply believe—to put it in the words of the text at hand—that they are “completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction” by living a good life—by being good enough.
This morning I’d like to make it clear that being good enough is not what the author of Colossians is saying when he writes that Paul was “completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction in his sufferings.”  And the reason why the famous Christian public figure that I mentioned earlier said that this passage of Scripture is “almost heresy” is because so many have taken it to mean that we are made right with God by doing our part.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Two Testaments, Same God (II Kings 1:1-17 and Luke 9:51-62)

St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church
“Two Testaments, Same God, Or, Samaritans, Prophets, Fire from Heaven: Revisited”
II Kings 1:1-17 and Luke 9:51-62

It was the fall of my senior year of high school.  It was “Bring your Bible to school day.”  I really didn’t want any part of this.  The last thing an anxious, young public schooler needs is to be known as the Bible thumper.  But, at the same time, I felt guilty about not participating.  I think someone pressured me into it, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t ashamed of the gospel—that I wasn’t ashamed of Jesus—so not only did I  bring it along, I put it on the top of my stack of books.  It’s only one day I told myself.  What could go wrong? 

It was first period.  My Calculus teacher had finished her lecture early and I was waiting for the bell that liberated my classmates and me from the clutches of rule and order for a mere six minutes.  As we waited, my best friend—who sat next to me—who I had been talking to about the Christian faith for… forever, saw my Bible and picked it up.  He plopped it open and read the first passage he saw…  What did he read the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, John 3:16?… No.  My friend happened upon the conquest narrative of the book of Joshua.  If you don’t know that story, suffice it to say it’s one of  what are known as the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible.  A passage most Christians aren’t rushing to write on cardboard signs and hold up at football games.  The last place I’d direct a curious young spiritual seeker. 

I was frustrated.  My friend, who had been witnessing to and praying for, was further turned away from the faith.  The bell rang.  My six minutes of freedom in between periods were ruined.  “Bring Your Bible to School Day” was a complete failure.  I remember thinking to myself, “Lord, why?  Here was your chance.  Why didn’t you plop open the book to highlight how good you are?  Why would you open the book to the Old Testament and not the New?”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I Need Control (Luke 8:26-39)

Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church
Luke 8:26-39
“I Need Control”

Not too long ago, a well-known Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, told a story to a group of pastors about an elderly lady he once visited in the hospital.  This woman had just been given some horrible news—she would no longer be able to use her legs.  Like a good minister he came to be present with her—he came to listen, he came to console.  After about 45 minutes, his not-so-subtle body language hinted at the fact that it was time for him to go.
       "Well, aren’t you going to pray for me?” she asked.
“Oh, sure,” he said.  “But you haven’t mentioned anything that you’d have me pray for.”
At this she looked at him funny.  “Pray that I’m able to walk again, of course.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, half-heartedly.
So the bishop said that he prayed the weakest prayer he’d ever prayed.  Something like, “Lord, Sally would really like to be healed.  Please give her patience with her new set of circumstances.  And, if it be your will, please heal her. Amen.”
When he opened his eyes he noticed that Sally was trying to get out of her bed.
“Sally, what are you doing?” He asked.  “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’m healed! I’m healed!” she yelled excitedly.  She then proceeded to hop out of bed, run out of the room, and shout for joy along the halls of the hospital.
Bishop Willimon told the group of pastors that in that moment he sneaked out of the hospital to hide in his vehicle.
In the safety of his own car he looked up and said, “Lord, don’t ever do anything like that again.”
The bishop had witnessed a miracle and it terrified him.  So what did he do?  He ran.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Still This Troubled Heart (Galatians 1:1-11)

St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Galatians 1:1-11 (I used the NRSV and J. Louis Martyn's excellent translation)
"Still This Troubled Heart"

When I was in college I was worried about my salvation.  I was worried about whether or not I’d go to heaven.  I was no axe-murderer—like the guys you see on the 10 o’clock news—but, at the same time, I was no activist, no monk, no “saint.”  So I took a few religion classes to find out more.  I took these classes hoping I’d find answers.  So I read and I read and I read. 

 “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them.”  I distinctively remember reading these words by the late medieval theologian Gabriel Biel.  I read further: as long you “did your best”—rejecting evil and trying to do good—you would be saved.  These words, originally meant to be assuring, proved to be anything but that.  In fact, they had the opposite effect on me.  As I noted earlier, I wasn’t a bad guy—at least, I didn’t think I was—but I had no way of knowing if I had done enough.  I had no way of knowing if I had done what “lies within me.”  In my quest for assurance I was left with doubt.  I was left with fear. 

But this all changed when I encountered the good news of the gospel.  And I am excited that for my first sermon here at St. Thomas I get to talk about the balm that quieted my troubled heart.  I get to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What one theologian refers to as the one-way love of God for suffering sinners like you and me.[1]  What the New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce summarized using these words, “Christ died [not for the healthy but] for the ungodly.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The Sinners Heard Him Gladly" Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Trinity Cathedral
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“The Sinners Heard Him Gladly”

On this fourth Sunday in Lent we take a look at the well-known parable of the prodigal son, which is probably better referred to as the parable of the two sons. 

The lesson begins by showing us who this parable is directed towards.  The text says that the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus.  The Pharisees and scribes see this and complain about Jesus.  How could a true righteous and holy man welcome and eat with sinners?  In those days to eat with someone was a sign of acceptance, something the Pharisees would never do with prostitutes and tax collectors, murderers and thieves. 

So we have two groups at hand for Jesus’ parable—the sinners and the “righteous.”

With both groups gathered, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons.

He starts with the younger, more well-known son.  From the start the son says to the Father, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Now this may not sound like a deeply irreverent and disrespectful request to us, but in the ancient world asking for your inheritance before your father died was anathema.  It was tantamount to wishing your father dead.  This request would have been scandalous to Jesus’ listeners.  The younger son was essentially saying, “Father I want your things, I don’t want you” (Tim Keller “Gospel in Life”).

Now the listeners, both sinners and Pharisees would probably have expected the Father to discipline the son severely, if not disown him.  But this does not happen.  So it came as a surprise, in Jesus’ parable, when the Father not only doesn't discipline the son, but he grants him his request.