This Illness Does Not Lead to Death

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”

Never in my life have I felt I understood Ezekiel’s experience more.

It has been another very scary week.

The coronavirus cases have climbed and climbed until the U.S. has more than any other nation in the world.

We have watched as frontline healthcare workers struggle to do their lifesaving jobs while being catastrophically underequipped.

Most of us are in one of three situations.

We are either sheltering in place and working from home, trying to keep kids active and learning or bearing the isolation of living alone.

Or we work in essential services so we are risking contagion every day as we continue to do our jobs.

Or we have been laid off and are suddenly facing complete unemployment and financial freefall.

We’re looking at the dry bones of how we used to live our lives. Comfort, security, normalcy, predictability, even safety are like so many scattered skeletons around us.

And the terrifying thing is these are only the first of the dry bones that will fill our valley.

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Ash Wednesday: Singing the Song of Our Enemy

The terrible war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in December 1995.

The fighting between Serbs and Croats had set itself up along ethnic and religious lines and so deepened the divisions between the warring factions that it seemed impossible to imagine them going forward in any type of peace, much less healing and reconciliation.

A Franciscan priest began a revolutionary project in early 1996.

He recruited singers from across the country, people who were gifted in music, not necessarily professionals, but just people who were known in their towns and communities for their voices.

He brought them all together, Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, some literally fresh off the battlefield, and asked them to begin singing together.

But not just any songs.

He asked them to sing the most traditional and well-known and deeply rooted religious songs of the Bosnian people, both Christian songs and Muslim songs.

He asked them to sing the songs of their enemies. Continue reading

Being Challengers

Each generation has at least one event that marks it forever.

People never forget where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, or when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks.

One of those pivotal historical events was the Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was only 4 years old and don’t remember it at all, but I have heard the stories of family and friends of the horror of watching the space shuttle lift off and only 73 seconds into the launch, explode and disintegrate.

Many American schoolchildren witnessed the horrific tragedy in real time.

Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the Challenger as the first civilian to travel into outer space, and so the launch was being broadcast into thousands of American classrooms that day for the students to watch.

What was intended to be a spectacle of scientific progress and brave new American frontiers in space turned into a heartbreaking catastrophe in an instant.

Seven astronauts died in the incident, and seeing America’s best and brightest go up in flames on national television had Americans asking for answers.

President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the tragedy. Its members included familiar names from the space program such as Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong, as well as Boeing engineers, a Nobel prize winner in physics, a CIA aerial surveillance expert, and several Air Force generals.

The sad findings were that the Challenger disaster was completely preventable.

The scientific proximate cause was the malfunction of something called the o-rings that connected parts of the spacecraft, which failed in the cold temperatures of the launch. The failure of the o-rings led to pressurized hot gasses escaping, which then ignited and caused the explosion.

But the literal scientific explanation did not answer the bigger question: why did this happen?

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Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?

And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.

The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.

The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.

That does not create transformed people.

In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.

(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)

So what can we say definitively about vocation? Continue reading

War And Baptism

Today we baptize three beautiful children. We enact the ancient rites and rituals of the church that we have practiced for thousands of years.

Their parents are entrusting them to this community to baptize them.

But a question remains. We baptize them–into what?

What do they become by being baptized that is different from who they are now?

Baptism induces a permanent and irrevocable change of state.

They were created in the image of God, but today they are baptized into a community, an identity, and a calling.

In a very real sense they are being ordained to do a job.

They, and you, are in the priesthood of all believers. Baptism marks the transition into this work.

As we read in 2 Peter, “You are…a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So what does the work of the priesthood of all believers look like?

We get an important part of our commission in Peter’s sermon in Acts today.

Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ…”

“Every nation,” Peter says.

“Peace by Jesus Christ,” he says.

This text struck me to the heart as I read it this week as day after day we seemed to be marching toward a war with Iran.

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Why Are You Searching For Me?

Today we hear the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke. And his first words are a question.

I have long been fascinated by Jesus’ questions.

He asks 307 questions in the gospels and only answers 3.

And so every time I run across one of his questions, I’ve learned that it will almost always lead me to unexpected spiritual places.

Given that asking questions is one of his primary modes of interacting with people, I shouldn’t be surprised that the first words out of his mouth in this gospel are a question.

“Why were you searching for me?”

That’s actually an incredibly relevant question for all of us.

Why are we searching for Jesus?

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Christmas Letter from the Brood of Vipers

“You brood of vipers!”

I had to practice that in the mirror to make sure I said it with suitable drama.

It is one of the great lines in the Bible, a thrust and a twist of the knife from the original fire and brimstone preacher himself, John the Baptist.

And if you ask any preacher if they haven’t fantasized about thundering that line from the pulpit themselves they are either A. lying, or B. catastrophically boring. Well, today was my chance. #ministrygoals.

I love John. John is brilliant because he cuts directly across the saccharine images of Advent and Christmas that saturate our culture today.

John does not coddle us with visions of a tender child in the manger, lambs sleeping sweetly in the stable, or even a serene and peaceful Blessed Virgin making her stately and elegant way toward Bethlehem with beautifully coiffed hair, clean skin, and unruffled robes.

John the Baptist is having none of it.

John’s Advent is rude, abrupt, and disorienting.

His primary message is, “Wake up, people! Your life is not working! You are going to rue the day if you don’t face up to the fact that God is about to rearrange your life completely. Something is coming that will change everything. Winnowing fork! Unquenchable fire! Holy Spirit! Brood of vipers!”

So while I love John for his passion and apocalyptic angst, I also fear and dread his words a bit.

I know I need his wake up call as much as if not more than anyone else.

After all, John’s main target in this text is the religious professionals, so my number is up.

But I’ll tell you the fascinating truth about John the Baptist.

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Christ Belatedly Crowned King in 1925, Sources Say

I have been misinformed.

That’s nothing new, I get confused and mixed-up and proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions all the time, but it doesn’t often happen to me liturgically.

Most of the time I know what’s going on in terms of worship and liturgy, it is what I get paid for, after all, but I had the wrong end of the stick on this one.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year.

I have always thought of Christ the King Sunday as an archaic feast.

It seems ancient, or at least medieval–old, anyway–to take an entire Sunday to talk about Christ as our Almighty King.

It would make sense that it comes from a time when most people who were Christians were in fact functioning in a system of government in which they were subjects of an actual, earthly king of some sort.

It makes sense that people who lived under a monarchy might need a reminder that there is a higher, more powerful king who trumps their current earthly king or queen, particularly if that earthly king or queen was oppressive or stupid or both.

But lo and behold, the Feast of Christ the King was not celebrated in the year 325 or 825 or 1125 or 1525.

The first time the church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King was 1925.

There’s still a lot of colonialism going on in 1925, but many, many Christians are living in democracies or locally governed tribal societies or even underground in communist regimes—fewer and fewer people had a king anymore.

So why celebrate Christ the King?

It turns out that the feast of Christ the King was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an anti-nationalist, anti-secularist statement.

Now, consider what was happening in Europe in 1925.

Fascism and totalitarianism were on the rise. Continue reading

Heavenly Sweepstakes Cancelled Due to Lack of Interest

One of the things I love best about Jesus is how tricky he is.

Jesus is a sneaky, tricky person!

How do I know that?

Well, he’s laid a trap for us in this gospel parable, and ten bucks say every last one of us fell right into it.

Let me explain.

So we begin with the tax collector and the Pharisee.

This is not a subtle parable; we know whose side we’re supposed to be on.

In fact, Jesus tips his hand with the opening explanation from Luke: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good. I hope I don’t end up in that group.

And the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

“What a dirtbag!” we think. “Seriously, does anyone pray like that? Thank God I’m not that arrogant! Thank you, God, that I am not a self-righteous jerk like this Pharisee! Thank you that I know that I am an unrighteous sinner like the tax collector. Thank you for making me more humble than anyone else!”

Oh. Wait a minute.

I think I just accidentally prayed a prayer identical to the Pharisee’s.

Jesus, you got me!

I fell right into the trap! Continue reading

Being Gratitude

Today I want to put two things together that might seem an odd match: healing and stewardship.

How do they fit together? Well, let’s turn to our gospel story from Luke and see what we can find out.

We read of ten lepers who band together and seek healing from Jesus.

The number ten in the Bible signifies completeness—think of the ten plagues of Egypt, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb on the tenth day of the month, or the Ten Commandments.

So we could read the ten lepers as representing a complete picture of humankind.

That’s a bit jarring, isn’t it?

Even today, we would think of lepers as “the other,” someone different than we are.

We know that leprosy in the Bible could represent any number of different medical conditions, but these people were ostracized from society, driven out and forced to live in sub-standard, isolated conditions.

When we think of lepers in the Bible, we are likely to think, “Those poor people. That’s awful.”

We are not so likely to think, “That’s me. I’m a leper. I need healing.”

But that’s exactly where I want us to go. Continue reading