The Invisible Mysteries of Joy

Lucinda, member at St. Luke’s, has a Facebook meme that she shares every year this week that cracks me up every time. It shows Boromir from Lord of the Rings leaning on a sword facing into the wind, looking very dramatic. And it says, “Brace yourselves. Sermons attempting to explain the Holy Trinity are coming.”

It’s true. The sermon this week is always a borderline futile effort.

It’s Trinity Sunday, and how do we talk about the Holy Trinity without immediately getting bogged down in trite clichés and unsatisfying mathematical analogies?

Well, we’re going to skip over all those vain attempts at explanation and go straight to the futility, because it is actually that very futility that I want to talk about.

Now, part of the reason I love St. Luke’s/St. Thomas is because you are perfectly comfortable with your priest standing in the pulpit and saying, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

You allow me that honesty, and echo it with honesty of your own.

Because I would far rather be with you in our common lack of understanding of the mystery of God, than by myself up here with some kind of high-and-mighty fancy theological explanation that is really a cover for my own ignorance and fear.

And that gets us to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it?

We as human beings are addicted to certainty.

We will tolerate almost any kind of nonsense as long as we get to say to someone else, “I know the truth,” or even better, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”. Continue reading

You Are the Voice of God (Don’t Panic!)

Because we know the story of Pentecost so well, it is all too easy to dismiss it. The tongues of fire descend on the apostles and they begin to proclaim the gospel in all the different languages of the multi-national and multi-ethnic group gathered in the city.

If we stop and think for a moment, however, we might question and wonder that this is the way in which the Holy Spirit chose to manifest.

Presumably the Holy Spirit could have come and empowered the disciples to do anything.

They could have been empowered to heal people or feed people, to do the same types of miracles that Jesus did.

But instead they were empowered to speak, not just speak, but communicate. What do you make of that?

Well, it says something about the nature of the work the disciples are called to do to birth the church. It must be primarily a task of communication, both speaking and teaching.

Deeds of power are useless without the words that explain them, that tell who is responsible for them and what they mean.

That’s why we have a sermon on Sunday morning.

The Eucharist is incredibly important, but if we didn’t have the opportunity to listen and speak and reflect on Scripture and the Eucharist and what they mean in our lives, we wouldn’t get very far in our Christian walk.

And the disciples wouldn’t have gotten very far in building the church if they did not have the ability to communicate the nature of the gospel.

The coming of the Holy Spirit is first and foremost a breaking down of the barriers to communication that exist in our lives.

This has important implications for us in two ways. Continue reading

Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

Do You Want to Be Healed?

Thirty-eight years.

Trapped just on the edge of healing for thirty-eight years.

It would be like living next door to a pharmacy but every time you go to it to try and get your life-saving cancer medication, it’s closed.

You are condemned to a painful and debilitating physical condition that may eventually kill you, because the means of getting treatment lies just beyond your reach.

This is the unenviable situation of the man in our gospel story today.

For thirty-eight years he has lived in the porticoes surrounding the Pool of Beth-zatha, and every time he tries to reach the pool and receive its healing waters, someone else beats him to it.

Can you imagine the frustration? The despair?

We get so little detail about this man that we have to speculate and use our imaginations to try and understand his incomprehensible situation.

First of all, what kind of medical condition did he have?

We don’t know, but we know that the other people at the pool were described as invalids and named as blind, lame, and/or paralyzed.

These are people who are limited in their mobility.

We know he can move at least a bit, because he keeps trying to get down to the pool, but he can’t ever make it fast enough. He may have only been able to crawl.

Thirty-eight years?

We’re immediately tempted to question how hard he really was trying to get down there and be healed.

That temptation is reinforced by Jesus’ own question to the man: “Do you want to be healed?”

We don’t know, because this man never answers directly, yes or no.

He basically says, “Well, I’ve been trying.”

Is that an excuse? Or is it a legitimate description of his disability? We don’t know.

But either way, we need to stop our judgement in its tracks and realize how very much we are like this man ourselves. Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

Want Transformation? Try An Upper Room

The Architecture of Transformation. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Our first scripture is from the Book of Acts, and you could be forgiven if it’s not one of the ones you have memorized by heart.

It’s the story of a woman named Tabitha, also called Dorcas, and her life and death as a disciple.

She was given the name and title of disciple, mathetria in Greek, and she’s the only woman given that title in the entire New Testament.

The community is convulsed with grief at her death. They clearly relied on her for leadership and service.

She mattered to them, deeply.

And so when she dies, the saints notify the leader of the entire fledgling Christian community, Peter.

Peter drops everything and comes to Joppa.

He finds her sisters in faith grieving deeply. They show him the evidence not just of her good works, the clothing she has made for the poor, but of how much she meant to them.

They struggle to see how they can go forward without her.

Peter sees how pivotal this female disciple was, this leader of the Joppa church, and he sends the mourners away.

He prays, and then he calls her by her name to rise up, and she does. She comes back to life.

No doubt the church and the entire community were overjoyed, and the text says that many people came to believe in Jesus after having heard about this event.

So that’s the basic story. But I want to call your attention to where this miracle occurs. Continue reading

Talk Is Cheap, Jump Out of the Boat

Today we read the breakfast on the beach, a surprisingly earthy and physical text for John to give us.

One way of describing the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, vs. John, the strange, outlier mystical gospel is that the synoptics tell us what Jesus did, and John tells us what Jesus means.

This text is rich with symbolism and meaning, so let’s explore it a bit.

First, we look at the numbers in the story.

The disciples, perhaps a bit overwhelmed with the recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, return to what they know best: fishing.

But remember what fishing symbolizes in the gospels: evangelism.

“Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” Jesus says.

And so the disciples fish all night, but they catch nothing.  Without Jesus, their labors are in vain.

And then, in the morning, Jesus comes to them.

He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly it is near to breaking with the weight of the fish.

And John tells us exactly how many of them there were: 153.

153 was thought in those days to be the total number of species of fish that existed in the world, and Jesus had helped the disciples catch every single one of them.

This is meant to remind us that on our own, our evangelism efforts are fruitless, but with Jesus, we can touch the soul of every single person that we meet, by trusting in him and following his commandments.

153 is the first important number in this gospel, and 3 is the second important number. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Easter: Second Star to the Right and Straight On Till Morning

 

Good morning, alleluia, etc. Today I am going to tell you the story of the Resurrection and what it means for us, so listen carefully.

 

“‘Tinker Bell,’ [Peter] called softly, after making sure that the children were asleep, ‘Tink, where are you?’ She was in a jug for the moment, and liking it extremely; she had never been in a jug before.

‘Oh, do come out of that jug, and tell me, do you know where they put my shadow?’

The loveliest tinkle as of golden bells answered him. It is the fairy language. You ordinary children can never hear it, but if you were to hear it you would know that you had heard it once before.

Tink said that the shadow was in the big box. She meant the chest of drawers, and Peter jumped at the drawers, scattering their contents to the floor with both hands, as kings toss ha’pence to the crowd. In a moment he had recovered his shadow, and in his delight he forgot that he had shut Tinker Bell up in the drawer.

If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water, and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed. A shudder passed through Peter, and he sat on the floor and cried.

His sobs woke Wendy, and she sat up in bed. She was not alarmed to see a stranger crying on the nursery floor; she was only pleasantly interested.

‘Boy,’ she said courteously, ‘why are you crying?’ Continue reading

Friday: Stigma/Stigmata

Today is the Day of Truth.

Today there is nowhere to hide from reality.

There is no escape from the awful, damaging depth of human sin, but there is also no escape from the life-changing knowledge of the lengths that God will go to in order to save us, in order to bring us home.

Today is a day for looking at your life and asking, “What is my deepest truth? Where do I plant my flag and say, ‘Come hell or high water, I stake my heart and my life and my soul on this truth, right here, right now.’?

As we stand in the shadow of the Cross today, as we brave every nerve in our body to look on the bleeding face of our suffering Savior, that truth may come to us in different ways.

We may express it in different words.

Every year I watch as Holy Week develops within me, over the weeks of Lent and over the days and hours leading up to this service.

And this year, the truth that is larger than I am, the truth that sends a rod of steel up my backbone, the truth that will stay with me no matter who or what else deserts me, comes in familiar words:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and at the latter day he shall stand upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”

These are of course the words of Job in chapter 19 of his book, but we are perhaps most familiar with them as the burial anthems, the words that are said at the opening procession into the church at a funeral.

Today is a day of chaos, and we need somewhere to anchor ourselves as the world spins out of control, as we see our God bleeding his life away in front of our very eyes.

Everything is deserting us, we are deserting him, and there is nothing to rely on.

Who will take care of us if Jesus is dead?

Who will hold back the forces of evil?

Who will shield us from the darkness and love us even though we make the same stupid mistakes over and over again?

These words from Job are a promise, but they are not a promise to save us from suffering.

They are not a shield or a protection from pain or fear or death.

They are a promise of what will come on the last day, what awaits us on the other side of our long struggle to be faithful and to be changed into a manifestation of God’s love in the world.

And they’re not just a promise to us or about us. They’re a promise about Jesus. Continue reading