Category: Dialog

Preaching in a Pandemic, When the Valley is Full of Bones

Well. This is not what I expected. Standing on Ash Wednesday or – better yet – dancing at the raucous and delicious party that was Fat Tuesday’s Pancake Supper, pretending as I seemingly do every year that I had any reason at all to be surprised that Lent was just around the corner, just beginning to imagine the shape of the Lent that would be, hopes, dreams, and intentions, what it would hold, I could not have imagined standing here now, on the last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Holy Week, from the combination home school, workplace, sound studio my home has become, I could not have imagined a moment quite like this, just you and me and these scriptures and a dustbin full of all the things we had planned for ourselves and our lives and the circles of community of which each of us is a part. While I count myself blessed by the support of this congregation, my family, and many other generous circumstances, I do not think it is either ungrateful or a stretch to say that nothing about today is what I would have chosen or imagined.

Tens of thousands of people today have not been given the luxury of discerning spiritual meaning from pandemics. The sick and the dying, the frontline folks in makeshift hospitals. So even grateful for good lessons of God learned in the midst of calamity, gifts of clarity, priorities, and vision, I do not want to pretend that this is what I would have chosen for myself or for you, for the world, left to my own devices. And I do not suspect I am at all alone in this.

If Lent is the season in which we learn to separate ourselves from every identity which threatens to unseat or displace our trust in God’s love for us as the most important thing about us, from the perch that is today, we realize that the goal of the season utterly escapes even our best abilities to produce it on our own. This has always been the case, but this Lent makes it clear.

In other words, Lent must finally take us through the doorway of death.

Enter Ezekiel. Enter Lazarus. Enter Jesus.

Like the first disciples, we might have thought or hoped that Lent would be about something else – losing ten pounds in the name of godliness or bulking up for the Body of Christ, maybe learning that second language, or putting ourselves in position to think better of ourselves and our frequently lackluster prayer lives. A boost of spiritual self-confidence.

But Lent is not for any of these things. Lent is for what happens when we lack any confidence. When our mortal bodies fail, along with our ability to control them. When there may be a hope, but it is not in us. When you find yourself in a valley, and that valley is full of bones.

This Lent maybe uniquely reminds us that Jesus doesn’t mean to save us, prevent us, from reaching the end of our ropes. Jesus comes to show us that the end of our ropes does not mark the end of his love. In other words, Jesus doesn’t come to help the mostly helpful. Jesus comes to raise the dead.

So the canvas, in the scriptures, for the glory of God consistently is not the resplendent countryside or the meadow full of flowers, but the belly of the whale, the cell of the falsely imprisoned, the pathway of the people who walk in darkness, the Hebrews born into bondage, the young men thrown into the furnace, the tomb that’s almost certainly already begun to stink.

Because Jesus doesn’t come to help the mostly already helpful. Jesus comes to raise the dead. To meet us in the place of our total surrender. Just now it seems so obvious, but how could a Lent of our own designing have ever helped us learn to die? How vain is even our humility that we cannot, on our own, imagine a place of helplessness as surrendered as Ezekiel’s. When the Lord asks Ezekiel the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?,” he shrugs his shoulders and feebly, but surely, answers, “O Lord God, you know.” This Lent has surely stripped of us of our pretensions of knowing what we cannot know. This can be the beginning of grace, and this must be our prayer.

Of course, not knowing is scary. What we cannot know, we cannot pretend to control. Which is one reason we rightly regularly remind ourselves of the mystery of God, whom we know and yet, for God’s depth and breadth, do not know. So we can be relieved of the false hope and heavy burden, the lie, that, if we do our lives right, we might control God, or – barring that – at least get out of life alive (Hauerwas).

But on faithful days we find ourselves praying prayers like those from the book of Ephesians, which the prayer book puts on our lips at the end of daily prayer each day; there we give glory to God who, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

But that is a strange thought. I can wrap my head around God doing more than I can ask or imagine. And I can wrap my head around God working in us. But both at the same time? If God’s ways are beyond our ways and certainly beyond our abilities, how can we be the location of the glory and mystery of God? Even in our frailty? The glory of God, working in us? How can incomprehensibility be so personal?

Our situation brings to mind a young Herbie Hancock, tickling the ivories for the incomparably great jazz virtuoso, Miles Davis. He tells the story of the time he was playing with Miles early on in his career and made what they call in the business a big mistake. He played a wrong chord. More than a wrong note. A few wrong notes at once. Notes that didn’t fit. He was mortified.

Hancock tell his own story:

Right in the middle of Miles’ solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord. A chord that just sounded completely wrong, it just sounded like a big mistake. I put my hands around my ears. Miles paused for a second. And then he played some notes that made my chord right, made it correct…which astounded me. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right.

God is like Miles Davis, I told my brother this week. Careful, he said, some people think that literally. But look here, God is not about merely excusing you. Overlooking you. Or cruelly berating you. Or, should you hit a wrong note, coldly replacing you. God in Christ is about redeeming you. And the notes that redeem are God’s to play. Oh, no doubt, for sure, once played, the divine song may become apparent to you. You may find your eyes opened, the priorities of your soul rearranged, your ears retuned, reoriented to a different way of being in this world. This is God’s gift. But redemption belongs to God, and it is God’s will to redeem all things with the song that belongs to God. And the notes of God’s song turn even the tomb – even death – into God’s passing notes in a song that never stops belonging to God. Take heart. Don’t be afraid. You belong to the song God is playing.

Just look at the gospel – clumsy, broken exchanges between Jesus and people who are angry and grieving. Some are close friends of Jesus. Others are voyeuristically watching the tense exchanges of close friends and offering unsolicited commentary. News gets delivered anxiously and nothing runs on time. Jesus is late. A man dies. Plenty of blame to go around, but Jesus shows no interest in it. Instead, he maintains that all of these things, imperfect as they feel, clunky as they are, will be made to serve the glory of God; all things are becoming notes in the song of God’s glory. Open the tomb. Unbind him, let him go.

To meaningfully contribute to work we can neither ask for or imagine is to trust God above all. Above limitations, reputations, imperfections, and pride. Above our ability to understand. Above our greatest doubts about ourselves. Above our meanest certainties of others. As people of God, we trust in the Lord.

Trust in the Lord. Put all the rest down. Put something that scares you to be without down. And then lift up your hearts. And then do both again. But make sure to do both. Both the putting down but also the lifting up. The more of our hearts we can lift for the things we put down. The lifting up transforming our days as we rejoice in the Lord always, even in the pit. Put down and lift up. And over again. Because someday death will do this for us, and so we will discover a day on which we rely on and know the mercy of God all the way. A living trust that tastes the abundance of love we’ve been given to share without fear. But, if we are open, God working in us, God’s Spirit on us, that day can be today.

Learning New Lives: Beholding the True Picture of God

A meditation on the 6th Station, given at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Dallas, TX, on March 6, 2020, as a part of their faith community’s Lenten practice.


Station 6: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
From the Stations of the Cross at Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya.

The Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

Full disclosure: I don’t have much experience wiping people’s faces. Maybe you are in a similar spot. Most of the limited experience I do have, and maybe yours too, is with children. I mention this because I spent most of my childhood here, and among us tonight are my grandfather, some godparents, former youth group leaders and others, who wiped my face in literal and metaphorical ways, for which I am grateful. Gwen McAllen spotted me one day, in 6th grade, in the narthex. She stopped me, which was remarkable because, like a lot of children, I had assumed I wasn’t seen. We don’t always think of children as among the vulnerable, but they are – they don’t come to or leave this place without help from someone else! – and she saw me and handed me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity because, she said, I seemed like a young man who might make good use of it. And the late George Ross, my fifth grade Sunday School teacher who gave me a perfect attendance Sunday school pin and stopped me cold one day when he said he was so excited to see what God might do in my life. Wiping the faces of children is a charism of this place, and I name it to name my gratitude for you and my prayer that God will continue to grow and bless that gift in you.

_________


It was compassion that first moved her. A response, however small, to grief, to empathy, to heartache touching helplessness. But the moment did not stay small. It is the church’s tradition and teaching that it was the face of God she encountered and saw in clearer detail for her love, for her noticing, for her noticing moving to compassion moving to action, governed by love. 


Compassion, aided by the gift of attention, of noticing, followed by the conviction born of compassion, that there is a face beneath the accumulated layers of suffering, pain, of life’s circumstance and blood, injustice, a face, a person beneath the suffering worthy of knowing and worthy of touch. Surely compassion like this, conviction like this, when it finds us, is God’s gift to be opened with thanks. A good reminder for those of us, charged through our baptism, to seek and serve Christ in each person, that for us, too, we are daily surrounded by people worthy of our attention, loved by this God and for whom Jesus died, and that that might move us to compassion and action. In the cleansing of these faces, in our serving the sorrowful, we might also see more clearly the face and the fabric of God’s kingdom.

The tradition holds that she took from that encounter a cloth that bore the image of our Savior. And that this cloth might still be found. Along these lines, the name the tradition gives the woman – ‘Veronica’ – is a name with a transparent meaning. It comes from the combination of Latin words, vera – truth – and icon – meaning image. True image. True picture. The true picture of Christ there was revealed on the cloth. And whether or not the fabric exists, this moment is a true picture of Christ, that is the main point that Soren Kierkegaard tried to remind us of two hundred years ago, when he said that the crucified Christ was truly God, but not in the sense that after the suffering, after the outpouring of love, after the love given for neighbor, the life laid down for friend and stranger, while we were yet enemies, Christ died for us, it was not as if – after all of this – said SK that Christ ripped off the costume, ripped off the Clark Kent mask to reveal the Superman beneath, the true God, no, but it was precisely in his suffering, in his emptying, by his refusal to meet the poisoned powers of this world in kind, that we encountered the truest face of God and the truth about what God’s love is. Easter Day does not undo but confirms this picture of God as the truest picture of God. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of crucifixion in his body.

With the face of God unmasked, with this true picture of the Holy One, we also see and receive a truer picture of the world. Think C.S. Lewis when he says that he believes in Christianity as he believes that the sun has risen: not only because he sees it, but because by it he sees everything else.


Let me ask you: how has the face of the crucified One, who became the risen Son, changed the way you see the world?


Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it got late, and the shopkeeper put things in order and called it a day. He closed shop and went home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves broke into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves didn’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearranged all the labels, the price labels, on the items in the store. So cheap things now had four digit tags. And really precious things were made to look cheap.

The next day, the shopkeeper arrived at the store and didn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appeared any less in order than it had the night before. There was business to attend to. Routines to keep. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundane-ness of the rhythms of life, it was just another day. Then the customers started arriving. They, too, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them began interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now were, as if the mislabeled labels reflected the true values of things. And they’re still doing that now, Kierkegaard says, we’re still doing this now, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.


Kierkegaard says that our world is that shop.


Cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and our devotion). We attach our lives to these cheap things in disguise. We make too much of them. Meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them, so we miss them altogether. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.


And yet. Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. Sometimes, a person finds herself doing double takes between twin mismatched realities, and she thinks to herself, “Well, that can’t be right.” You peel off a label of a precious thing called cheap and you decide to elevate its place in your life. Likewise, you peel the high-priced label off of the cheap thing and make room in your life accordingly. You wipe off the battered face and find a child of God. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles.


Like this Methodist congregation, back in the 80s, that discovered one of their own had contracted HIV. They held a special meeting, considered excommunicating the infected parishioner or canceling communion altogether, forever. Maybe the person could just commune at the very end, even after the clergy. You know, just to be safe. But they decided not to act that night, but instead to look into it, and when they did look into it, they learned that the greatest danger, by far, was to the parishioner with HIV, whose immune system was greatly compromised, far more likely to be affected by drinking of the cup than the others who shared the cup with her. In a moment of grace, they shook off fear and became the body of Christ again. They determined that, from that moment on, the parishioner with HIV would commune first, would eat and drink first, that they would follow. Because we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread, one cup.


Veronica took up a cloth, put it to the face of a stranger condemned to death for deadly things, she reached out to one of the things, the people, labeled as worthless, dangerous, forbidden, and touched God meeting us in the mess and depths of humanity’s brokenness, touched God becoming broken for us, and discovered the suffering servant of Isaiah. The vineyard owner’s child, returned and rejected. The Son of the living God, the one who did not count equality with God as something to be exploited or grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.


Author and activist Shane Claiborne cautions that we should be careful. “Be careful as you climb the ladder of success or else on your way up you might pass Jesus on his way down.”


We who come here to behold his face are learning to see the world in light of the love that has held nothing back from us and so freed us for lives that love in his company. In his company, fists of fear un-clench and open. Moreover, his company is causing us to question the logic of this world which clings to certainties we cannot claim, inviting us to love in scary places, with frightening and frightened people, without fear. For lo, he is with us. And, lo, he is with them, the scary, the frightened, the ones for whom he also died. The ones in whom his image is also put, for whom redemption is also meant, even there, on their faces, buried beneath the blood.

Coronavirus: 4 Resources for Christians, Parents, and Churches

The Episcopal Diocese of Dallas recently sent an outline of practices to local churches that will helpfully keep congregations ahead of potential threats to especially vulnerable members of our faith communities. If you belong to that diocese, expect to hear more about these practices from your local clergy in coming days. The main thrust of these practices is directed at minimizing transmission of the coronavirus, should it come to our communities. 

The links below are offered as additional resources for staying present to the situation and each other, from a variety of pastoral angles. As a parent, I’m especially interested in resources that help me talk to my kids about the situation without keeping them up at night. There are a couple in the list here. 😉

[ ] Episcopal Relief and Development – includes guidelines, resources, safe measures and equity for church workers, and prayer.
[ ] NPR comic for kids – SUPER HELPFUL. Highly recommended. Printable for distribution.
[ ] Fear can be contagious, too – talking to kids about media coverage.
[ ] Flu Season, the Coronavirus, and the Church, from the Wisconsin Council of Churches – a bevy of resources ranging from scriptural and ecclesial frameworks for engagement, best practices, responding to the needs of our neighbors, countering bias, and addressing anxiety.

What else are you finding that’s helpful? Comment below!

Incremental Faith

I very much want to either force the entirety of my parish to watch all of The Good Place immediately, or else to speed up time so I can reasonably preach on the series finale without spoiling it. However, the likelihood of either of these things happening is small. This is too bad, because The […]

To Grow a Trust in God (What Lent is For)

This time of year, I half expect to find a train conductor in the parish hall or hiding in the sacristy, already collecting tickets from early boarding travelers. “All aboard!” she’ll call out. I look suspiciously for train conductors because I imagine the last Sunday before the first Sunday of Lent, really the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the day we’re standing on now, as a day to pack our bags, or at least review our pack lists, before dispatching on a trip, the wilderness wanderings called Lent. We’re getting ready for a journey. Let me ask you, what are you taking with you? What should I put in my bags? Metaphorically speaking, of course, but even metaphors take preparation. The goal, I would think, is to travel lightly and carry only those things essential to what the journey is about. Carry those things that will help you remember where you’re going and why. Leave the rest at home; it is so easy to distract ourselves away from journeys and  intentions that, once upon a time, we were very glad to choose.


Of course, some trips don’t require intention, but some do. And among the some that do, a few rise to the level of requiring prayerful focus. Think the history of Christian pilgrimage. Lent falls along these lines. What should we carry? What kind of luggage will support our intention? What items or mindsets might we leave behind?


Some of us will want to pack a Lenten discipline. Those are popular this time of year. They’re good but tricky things to pack well and can sometimes become unwieldy. Sometimes they become the distractions we’re trying to avoid, so we’ll want to think them through. (I always think of Stephen Colbert asking his friend, Father James Martin, what he was giving up for Lent. Fr. Martin replied, “I don’t know he hasn’t told me.” Colbert looked puzzled at Fr. Martin. “I have a friend, a rabbi, pick them out for me.” He explained. This strikes me as brilliant. No point in having a discipline intended to foster trust in God become an occasion for self-made independence, artificial identity, and pride.) On the other hand, a Lenten discipline that strips away the things we are tempted to trust more than God and invites us to trust God in the space of vulnerability? That sort of discipline is worth putting in the bag.


We might also want to comb the closet for special learnings picked up from previous journeys. Most of us have traveled this particular road before, and – while no two trips are ever exactly the same – wise travelers will want to learn from, build on, or deepen their previous relationship with this particular, barren road.


Next on the list, well, we don’t pack each other, but I am glad that the journey is one made in and as the community of faith. Remembering this helps me be a little less uptight about especially the things I will leave behind. Traveling light, after all, is a vulnerable thing, but Christians commit to travel together and to make each one’s trials our own. That is to say, I got you. And you got me. I am glad we walk this road together.


Finally, every time we get ready for the particular journey called Lent, that sometimes frightening voyage into the wilderness, the lectionary that assigns the readings for each Sunday walks up to us (metaphorically speaking), stopping on the way to pick up the gospel reading in which Jesus’s friends see the glory of God on a mountain; it puts a gentle hand to our shoulder and quietly whispers, “This one. Don’t forget to take this one.” We put it in the bag to carry with us. Always in our bags is this story, the picture, of Jesus with his friends, transfigured on the mountain.
It’s a picture meant to show us Jesus, in at least two ways. To carry the picture of the transfigured Jesus into Lent is to carry strength and encouragement for when the journey gets hard, the reminder that this is who Jesus really is, the radiant Christ and Son of God. We need not be afraid! But to carry the picture of the transfigured Jesus into Lent is also to help us recognize that even – maybe especially – in the life of faith, things do sometimes get scary! The disciples thought they knew what they’d signed up for when they followed Jesus, but now he’s glowing, the earth is shaking, a cloud’s descending, they’re fallen on their faces, and they’re terrified. The picture of the transfigured Jesus reminds us that to follow Jesus is not to control Jesus. To follow him without controlling him is to learn to trust in him.


This reminder will help us when, some weeks from now, we stand at the foot of the cross, and profess that this, too, is God. This, too, is God’s glory. It’s the same Jesus. The cross bears the shape of divine love. Even on Easter morning, the radiant One will bear the wounds of crucifixion. So, with the help of this picture, the transfigured Jesus, to guide us, the life of peace and the way of the cross are revealed to be one life. And so, for us, the life of faith must also be the way of the cross. 


We only do Lent at all because he has asked us to follow.


A French writer once wrote, “In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” When Lent points us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, when Lent points us to baptism, it calls us to the life of a saint, to the life that trusts in God. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a picture of what it means to be a saint because it is a picture of staying present when, like Peter, we don’t know what’s coming next and so we truly are following, even open to getting things wrong and correction. But most of all, it’s a picture of trust and God’s glory; a picture of what Lent is for. The Transfiguration reminds us why we make the trip.


When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Jesus is to look on God. So they are beginning to learn God’s love, that does not fear the cross, and the truth they will find there, that nothing can separate them – or us – from the love of God, revealed to us in Christ Jesus. 
When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they also see a picture of themselves as they will one day be, fully surrendered to God’s love as the most true thing about them. Staying present to God when things get scary. Glowing with the glory of God. Adam as Adam was created to be. When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Christ is to see a healed humanity, and the one by whose power – not their own – this is possible.


Lent is about trust and God’s glory. Lent is for growing our trust in God’s love as the most important thing about us. Putting down the other things we were tempted to trust instead, especially those fears or misplaced trusts that come at the expense of our visible love for our sisters and brothers. In fact, if we do not know what we trust more than God, one way to start is to look for injustices – racial, ecological, local, and global – we are reluctant to address. One way to start is to pay attention to what in this life we’re afraid we might lose.


Lent is about trust and God’s glory. This is why Lent is about preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.


Question. What could we put in our bags that might help us stay present or reconnect to the gift of our baptism? To traveling the way of the cross and discovering it to be the way of life and peace? What practices, or Lenten disciplines, would put baptism in our bones?


Of course, there’s not just one answer. One person might make a practice of reading the promises of baptism every day over lunch. Another person might try to memorize the Exsultet, that great hymn that begins the Easter Vigil, as a way of allowing the joy of that great feast to get inside them. Memorization is great for traveling light. Still another might offer herself to serve in the community in a way for which she is not sure she is qualified, because the combination of surrender and trust, of life poured out for each other is the stuff of God’s glory, trusting, and Lent. And of course, because by our baptism we are made one body, because we who are many are one, because we all share one bread, one cup, we do well to consider those disciplines that belong to the body, the special weekly gatherings during Lent that teach us more about what it is to belong to each other, because we belong to God.


You can begin to see the possibilities. Possibilities not simply to be made better, but to be made real. To be made a saint, even. Putting on Christ. Shining with the glory of God. This is what Lent, in the end, is for: trust and God’s glory, preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.


All aboard? I’ll see you in the desert.

Amen.


Signs and Laws and whatnot

There’s a sort-of joke among clergy, that once you run out of preaching material that starts “When I was in seminary”, then you have to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and then that should carry you through til retirement. I have been to Israel/Palestine four times now, and I rarely talk about it […]

In which the lectionary and I have beef

I know it’s very hip right now to complain about the RCL, but SERIOUSLY. Why must we read the same story of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew from John, and then Matthew in sequential weeks? Is the RCL just trolling preachers now?! This, then, is part 2 of my apparent series on Jesus Calls Him […]

Behold, the vegan Lamb of God

So, since we last spoke, o Blog, I have had minor surgery and went to the Holy Land for two weeks. January was wonderful, but did not involve tons of preaching. Therefore, I am playing a bit of catch-up. First up is a sermon that I am personally fairly proud of because I managed to […]

The Presentation: Waiting for redemption

Shepherds, sheep, wise men, and angels.  We celebrate the large cast of players in the Christmas story with visual representations ranging from finely crafted Nativity sets to church pageants filled with children decked in bathrobes and homemade wings. … Read More