Thrown Into the Air

There’s a lot going on in our gospel text today.

We have Jesus talking about vipers, trees and axes, wheat and chaff, water and fire.

What’s he trying to communicate to us?

Jesus sounds angry in this lesson, especially with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and maybe he is angry.

But I think it’s an anger that comes from passion and urgency.

It’s like when you scold your three-year-old after she almost runs out in the street—it’s an anger born of fear and love.

You so want this person to be safe, there is no other way to communicate the intensity of your desire but through seemingly harsh words.

That’s how Jesus feels about us.

Jesus does not want us stuck in the same old patterns that keep us small and selfish and fearful.

He does not want us to live lives dominated by suspicion and cynicism and a vague, aching sense deep inside of us that there must be more to life than what we’re experiencing.

Jesus wants us to undergo radical change, stomach-churning transformation, having the rug pulled out from under us in the most disorienting way, because that is what it takes to grow up into the full stature of Christ.

All of Jesus’ images in our gospel today are about profound disruption, and I’m not sure that’s a message we’re all too keen on hearing right now. Continue reading

A Magnificat Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar is a cherished winter tradition. We open a paper door on each day of the calendar from Advent until Christmas and read a saying or Bible verse to reflect upon spiritually. If the person who bought us the calendar really splashed out, we might get some chocolate out of each day’s slot as well! (I’ll give you three guesses as to which daily gift I gave more heed to when I was little, the Bible verse or the chocolate.)

I’d like to offer a different type of calendar as we enter the season. The Magnificat, or Song of Mary, is the cornerstone text of Advent. This is Mary’s response in Luke 1 after the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear a child and name him Jesus, and Mary goes to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth.

The Magnificat as it occurs in the Book of Common Prayer in the canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer contains twenty verses, including the Gloria Patri. If you were to pray about one of these verses every day except Sunday, they would cover from November 28 (the First Monday of Advent) through December 20, with December 21-24 open to reflect upon the entire text. I am curious as to what our Christmas worship would be like if we each committed to this simple spiritual discipline.

To help you out, I’ve created this “Magnificat Month” Advent calendar below. Continue reading

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

Election: I Will Not Be Moving On, and Here’s Why

I was listening to a book by Jim Finley, the great Roman Catholic contemplative teacher, and he said something extraordinary.

He said, and I paraphrase here, “Great pain is always pointing to great unacknowledged truth.”

I can’t think of a more apt description of how our nation has been feeling this week.

This is not a pulpit sermon. I will not be preaching this to my congregation during Sunday morning worship.

It is instead a very personal reflection on what I have been experiencing in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as our president, and how I see the scriptures relating to that.

Jesus is right with us in the beginning of our gospel lesson today.

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

This week many things were thrown down in our lives, first and foremost our image of what we thought America was, how far we thought America had come.

I think many of us really believed that with our first black president and the advent of marriage equality, our nation had really turned a corner.

We were living in a fool’s paradise. Continue reading

The Best Part of Being a Height-Challenged Sinner

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he!” If you didn’t get to sing that in Sunday school as a kid, you were missing out.

Luke goes to great pains to point out to us that Zacchaeus was short in stature, but he means it in terms of more than just his physical height (or lack thereof).

Zacchaeus doesn’t have much moral stature either. He’s not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector.

Luke says that he’s rich, and we can read into that “filthy rich with ill-gotten gains.”

This is not an admirable man. In fact his moral stature is so low that he can’t even see Jesus.

But one of Zacchaeus’ greatest characteristics is his lack of self-consciousness.

He is curious about Jesus, and he is determined to see Jesus.

So Zacchaeus, a rich and well-known figure in the community, climbs a tree to see Jesus, no matter how ridiculous it may look.

It is not a dignified posture, and immediately draws attention to Zacchaeus’ physical shortness, that he has to take this step to see over the crowd.

Could we infer that he also boldly reveals his lack of moral stature as he climbs this tree in the imaginative universe of this story?

If he is not afraid to be seen to be too physically short to see Jesus, is he equally courageous in admitting his lack of ethical worthiness?

How could we do the same?

How could we approach Jesus with an utter lack of self-consciousness, exactly as we are? 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

Enlightenment: Alone and An Idiot On the Far Shore

Are you serious about your spiritual journey?

Do you really want to have a meaningful life?

What are you willing to go through in order to really be transformed? To learn to love?

“Who doesn’t want a meaningful life?” we might ask.

But even Jesus cautions us to think twice.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?,” Jesus asks in the Gospel of Luke. “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”

Honestly, I think it’s probably better that we don’t really know how demanding and challenging the spiritual life is when we first start out, or else we might really think twice about pursuing it!

Do you remember the first time you started to think seriously about deeper things?

If you were raised in a faith tradition, it might have been in adolescence when you first started to say, “Wait a minute: how can Moses have written the first five books of the Bible if they tell how he dies?”

Or, “How could they have gotten two of literally every kind of creature on the ark? Did they get two gnats? Two mosquitos? Two flesh-eating bacteria? And what about the fish? The flood wouldn’t have bothered them at all, so are there a bunch of descendants of sinful, unredeemed fish and clams and stuff from Noah’s time who didn’t perish in the flood?”

These were the surface questions that started to trigger more meaningful ones, like “Who are these people we’re supposed to be emulating? What am I supposed to do with my life? And will the faith I’ve been taught really help me find out?”

If you were not raised in a faith tradition, it was probably one of two things that triggered your first existential crisis: a bad break-up or your first philosophy class in college. (The two have more in common than you’d think.)

You were either badly jilted and mourned your suddenly meaningless existence, or started reading Kant and Hegel in class and thought for a heady half-hour at a coffee shop with your friends that you were the first person to seriously consider moral relativism.

And then enjoyed looking down your nose at your poor, deluded, stodgy parents who just believed a bunch of out-of-date boring stuff. (Insert nostalgic sigh here.)

What I’m getting at is that a meaningful life requires some engagement of your spiritual self, and any spiritual path you take, if pursued with integrity and energy, will eventually take you some really tough places. 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

I Have Something to Say. About Evangelism.

Today I am going to get up on my soapbox, so just brace yourselves.

This is a ranty, possibly self-righteous screed with many iterations of phrases like, “And another thing!”

So strap in, and hold on.

Rant commences here: let me tell you something. I am sick and tired of Episcopalians acting like they’re too cool for evangelism.

We are grown men and women, and what’s more, we are grown men and women who have been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And we have an affirmative moral obligation to make the grace and mercy and peace we have been so richly anointed with available to people who have not encountered it.

I see three common attitudes with regard to evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Continue reading

Banned Books, Banned People, Banned God

The Washington D.C. public library system has done a fabulous project this year for Banned Books Month.

They have constructed a scavenger hunt for banned books all around the city.

They’ve taken books banned by various jurisdictions over the years and put fake covers on them. These covers are plastered with labels that state the grounds for having banned them.

So for example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has a cover that says “ANTI-WHITE,” because that is why it was banned in Columbus, Ohio in 1963.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles has a cover that reads “FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

It’s a fun project that draws attention to a serious issue. Censorship is alive and well all around the world today.

For centuries regimes, governments and dominant majorities have tried to maintain oppressive statuses quo by controlling what people read and see and hear.

And if they control what we read and see and hear, they can control what we think and do.

It’s very comfortable to place all blame and responsibility for censorship on some far-off blank-faced Big Brother figure we call “The System.”

But a dear clergy friend of mine asked me a painfully insightful question as we talked about the gospel lesson this week.

“Aren’t we censoring our own worlds all the time? Isn’t that what the rich man in the story was doing his whole life?” Continue reading