Life and Death Are Not Opposites

We live our lives by signs and symbols.

When we see a red octagonal sign with white lettering on it, we know it means stop.

When we see a rectangle with a blue square covered in white stars adjacent to white and red horizontal stripes, we know it means America.

When we see the double golden arches, we know it means hamburgers of dubious quality.

But as people of faith, our understanding of the symbolic universe goes much deeper than public safety, patriotism, or advertising.

God communicates to us through signs and symbols.

And in our walk with Christ, God is through our prayer and service helping us take these symbols deeper into our hearts until we ourselves become living signs and symbols of God’s love.

That is the journey these two children, Austin and Carter, are beginning today with their baptism.

And what we discover very rapidly in the life of faith is that God’s symbols are often ambiguous.

The images we take to our hearts, that we know will change us if we are faithful to how they point to God, cut both ways.

That jumped out at me so dramatically as I thought about water this week.

The images of homes and people drowning in water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey are at war with our beautiful sacrament of baptism that we celebrate today.

For the people of southeast Texas and Louisiana, right now water means death and loss and fear. For those of us celebrating baptism with joy, water means life and rebirth and hope.

How do we reconcile that juxtaposition? Continue reading

The Path of Totality

I regret to inform you that from the backyard of St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana, the eclipse was a total bust.

I didn’t do any real prep for it, to tell you the truth. I didn’t buy any glasses, or even make one of those homemade cereal box viewers.

My parents’ house in Missouri was in the perfect spot to see the complete eclipse, and they and my sisters and all their kids were gathering to have a party for it. I guess I was bummed that I wouldn’t be a part of it and was kind of cranky about the whole thing.

But that morning I did look up when the 93% bit that would be visible in Indianapolis would come through, 2:28 p.m., and I dutifully went outside at 2:24 p.m.

I was mostly hoping to view the effects on the environment around me, since I wasn’t prepared to be able to see the eclipse itself.

I thought it might get dark, even drop a few degrees in temperature. I carefully watched shadows to look for changes, and tried to see if I got the heebie-jeebies.

Well, it was a total zero.

There were clouds coming across the sky the whole time, and even when the clouds dissipated briefly, nothing seemed to change.

It was like a normal partly cloudy day all the way through 2:28 p.m. Then I heard my phone ringing and had to run back inside—my boss needed me to check something on my calendar.

The whole thing was significantly underwhelming, to say the least.

But I am 100% in the minority in having had that result.

Everyone else I heard from had dramatic and even life-changing experiences.

One person burst into tears as it happened.

Others were flooded with joy and awe at the miraculous workings of the cosmos.

Many people, including a couple of members of my family, found themselves deeply unsettled and even disturbed by the eclipse.

Some animal part of their brains felt threatened by the most constant and unchanging part of nature, the sun that makes all life possible on our planet, going dark. My mom said she even got lightheaded.

I was fascinated by these accounts, and paradoxically found myself far more interested in the eclipse after it happened than I was before or during. I was so intrigued by these disparate reactions.

And as many people have commented, there also was something healing and hopeful about the unity briefly displayed in a nation so deeply divided.

Even if we went back to shouting at each other a day later, for one brief, dark moment, we all looked at the sky together and held our breath.

There was this narrow path that stretched across the U.S. where the eclipse was total. The sun would be 100% covered by the moon and completely blocked out.

This band was called “The Path of Totality.”

And as I heard the experiences of the people who witnessed it, the joy and fear and awe that washed over them, I realized that “The Path of Totality” is in fact a fantastic image for the gospel life—which Jesus in fact described as a narrow path, just like in the eclipse. Continue reading

Charlottesville: When Forgiveness Is a Trap

Today we’re going to talk about forgiveness. We’re going to talk about what it is and what it’s not.

We’re going to talk about when forgiveness is the combination of hard-won humility and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and when it’s abused as a pacifying and dominating tool to cover up legitimate grievance and sweep conflict under the rug.

We’re going to talk about it in scripture, in our own hearts and lives, and we’re going to talk about it in terms of what happened in Charlottesville.

In the gospels, Jesus talks about forgiveness constantly—on 41 separate occasions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke alone.

The word “forgiveness” appears 46 times in the Hebrew scriptures, and 18 times from Acts through Revelation.

It’s a really important topic in the Bible, and in fact, the very first mention of it in the scriptures is at the end of our incident in Genesis today, when Joseph forgives his brothers.

Joseph’s brothers had plotted to murder him, and only at the last minute were talked into selling him into slavery. They tried to ruin his life, and would have succeeded without God’s intervention.

There are some important parallels here in the historical relationship of White Americans to Black Americans.

So what enabled Joseph to forgive his brothers?

How do we untangle our complicated emotions around justice and peace, reform and reconciliation, when forgiveness is holy and life-giving and when it is a cop-out from conflict?

A big part of the problem is that the Church has told us our whole lives to forgive, but has really never explained how to do it.

“Just forgive,” we’re told. Well, how? Continue reading

Here Comes This Dreamer; Come Now, Let Us Kill Him

Even before the events in Charlottesville this weekend, my attention was snagged by the Genesis text , and I can’t let it go.

There’s something powerful and dark about it that is all too easy to let slide when we could let our attention be drawn by this week’s story of Jesus walking on the water or Paul’s beautiful quote, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

Genesis 37 is the story of seventeen-year-old Joseph, innocent, naïve, and oblivious to the toxic jealousy he has awakened in his brothers.

He dons his many-colored coat and eagerly sets out to join them with the flocks, unheeding or perhaps unware of how each bright thread reminds his brothers that they are second best.

Their father loves him the most, and they know it.

It’s not Joseph’s fault that Jacob has apparently failed to keep abreast of all the best parenting techniques on whatever passed for the mommy blogs in ancient Israel.

There is a deep history of complex father-son and brother-brother relationships in this family.

Joseph’s father Jacob feuded with his twin brother Esau, jealously conning him out of his birthright.

Joseph’s grandfather, Isaac, was almost murdered by his own father, Abraham, until the Angel of the Lord stayed his hand and provided the ram caught in the thicket for the sacrifice.

Blood means more than heredity in this family.

They seem to dance around shedding one another’s blood in cycles of conflict invested with deep and tangled emotion.

But today it looks like that in this generation, they will finally cross the line and kill one of their own.

“They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.” Continue reading

Transfiguring Vocation

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 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? Continue reading

The Church Is Dying, And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us

Average Sunday attendance: down.

Membership numbers: down.

Yearly pledge income: down.

The statistics don’t lie.

For the past forty years, accelerating like a train down a mountain for the last fifteen years, the Episcopal Church and indeed the entire Christian mainstream has been losing strength, losing growth, losing life.

If even the megachurches are hemorrhaging members, what hope do we have?

The Episcopal Church is dying.

It’s no secret. Everyone knows it is happening. Continue reading

Cranmer: The Weedy Field with the Great Harvest

If you’re not aware of this already, let me give you some breaking news: Jesus is awesome.

I love this gospel text. It is a perfect illustration of his subversive wisdom, his undermining grace, his sneak attack on our complacencies and familiarities.

One of my favorite things about Jesus is that he refuses to allow us to believe we have all the answers.

We’ll arrive at a new spiritual understanding and relish and celebrate and benefit from it.

But the minute it starts to contribute to our ego satisfaction, Jesus will rip the rug out from underneath us.

Last week we talked about the fact that however great of a spiritual teacher Jesus may be, to be honest he would make an abysmal farmer.

Thank God the family business was carpentry instead.

But we continue this week with another edition of Poor Agricultural Advice by Jesus Christ, in the form of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.

First of all, who sows weeds? How does one even accomplish that?

Jesus attributes it to the Enemy or the Evil One, and I always have this image of the Devil standing in someone’s newly plowed field blowing the seeds off dandelions with unholy glee.

Then Jesus has the householder tell his servants not to weed the ground, because “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

That’s, um, not how it works.

Every first-grader cultivating his first garden plot in the backyard knows that weeding is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the process.

And when you pull out weeds, generally the plants you are trying to grow are not uprooted if you pay attention at all.

So if we conclude once again that Jesus is not giving literal horticultural advice, what does he mean? If we are to take this spiritually, where do we land? Continue reading

Jesus Is a Bad Farmer

This week we have the chance to explore the Parable of the Sower, which honestly might better be described as the Parable of the Bad Farmer.

Remember that Jesus taught in an agrarian society, and what might not jump out at us at first was immediately obvious to his original listeners.

Seeds were, and are today, very valuable.

Jesus tells us that the sower sows his seeds on the path, on the rocky ground, on the thorny ground, and finally on the good soil.

You honestly would have to be a pretty stupid farmer to cast 75% of your seed in places where you knew it wouldn’t grow.

And it was incredibly wasteful.

You know the term “seed money”? It’s exactly what it sounds like.

Purchasing seeds is the most important investment a farmer makes outside of buying the land in the first place.

Sowing seeds on the path, the rocky ground and the thorny ground would be like investing money 25% in rotary telephone manufacture, 25% in blacksmithing, 25% in time travel, and 25% in a respected investment fund.

It’s essentially throwing 75% of your money in places you know will never grow, and hoping for the best.

Once it becomes clear that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is really Jesus’ Parable of the Sower Who Is Really Bad At His Job, we have to ask ourselves why he told it that way.

Is Jesus the bad farmer? Continue reading

The Adoration and Seduction of Your Soul

This is going to be a great, big, gooey, gushy, schmaltzy sermon, so just brace yourselves.

It is going to be embarrassingly emotional, uncomfortably intimate, and just all around hearts and flowers, so buckle up.

We are going to talk about God’s love today.

We are going to talk about the love of God in all of its extravagance and all of its irresponsible, reckless intensity.

I spend enough time in this pulpit talking about the challenges of life, our struggles to confront darkness both within ourselves and in the world.

Today I’m taking up the challenge Paul articulates in Ephesians: “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Do you wake up in the morning and know that your destiny and your purpose is to know that you are filled with all the fullness of God?

Are you reminded at least once an hour that God delights in you?

Do you understand that God has never been disappointed in you?

God may have mourned your choices, grieved your hurting of yourself and others, longed for you to turn toward God in faith and trust, but take this knowledge and write it on your heart: God has never been disappointed in you.

You are God’s favorite, God’s darling, the light of God’s life.

God gets up in the morning to see you, to know you, to work in your life and try one more day to seduce you a little closer.

I’m telling you that nothing, and I mean nothing, in your life is more important that knowing that God loves you.

It sounds so simplistic, but most of us live the majority of our lives with only theoretical knowledge of God’s love, not experiential knowledge.

And thus when we try to love others, from our own spouses, parents and children to our colleagues to starving and oppressed people around the world, we find that sooner or later, our love runs out.

Self-generated love is a limited resource.

We can only love others truly, fully, unconditionally when we let God love us truly, fully, unconditionally.

And “let” God love us is absolutely the right verb. Continue reading

Listen Hard in the Dark

In today’s scriptures we have a tragic story, an absolutely key synthesis of our entire faith, and some very hard sayings.

We begin with the story of Hagar being cast out into the wilderness, driven out by Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s cowardice, left to die with her son in the desert.

Then we have Paul in Romans giving the most succinct summation of death and resurrection as embodied by baptism in the entirety of the New Testament.

And finally, we have Jesus telling us he might potentially deny us before the Father in the heaven, that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and that family conflict is 100% a part of following him.

How are we going to put all that together?

We must begin where we always begin—by putting ourselves into the story.

We can start by identifying where we want to turn away with disgust from what’s happening, and that’s with Sarah and Abraham.

It’s a godawful mess.

Sarah could not bear a child, so she told Abraham to “go in” to Hagar, which is Bible-speak for having sex, and Hagar got pregnant.

Hagar had no choice in this scenario, she was exploited twice over, first by being used as a sexual object by her master, and then as a brood mare to produce an heir.

Sarah quickly regretted her decision, but not out of human decency. She was jealous and bitter both of Abraham having sex with Hagar, and also of Hagar’s ability to conceive.

Sarah took it out on Hagar multiple times, until now she goes to the extreme and essentially condemns Hagar and baby Ishmael to death.

She tells Abraham to send them out into the desert, and to his eternal shame, he does.

It’s an ugly, ugly situation, and incidentally, that is one of the remarkable aspects of the Hebrew scriptures. The writers in no way shy away from telling the truth about what happened, no matter how repulsive it is.

These ancient writers are not afraid to attribute reprehensible moral conduct to the ultimate patriarch and matriarch of the nation, Abraham and Sarah.

This reflects a tradition that is able to be self-critical, that is able to see God at work even in human weakness and sin. That is one of the great gifts of Judaism to us, one of their daughter faiths, and to human religion at large.

A great clue as to what lies unredeemed in our own hearts is what causes a strong negative emotional reaction in us.

If you want to see where you’re in denial and where you need spiritual growth, simply pay attention to where you get defensive.

It’s a surefire way to see your shadow.

I think most of us would react against Sarah and Abraham’s actions in this story, and justly so.

But as soon as we say, “I would never do that!” we have to think again. Continue reading

© 2017 Roof Crashers and Hem Grabbers