Archives: Easter

Questioning Evangelism

Today we grapple with the knowledge that God is both the problem and the solution, the search and the treasure, the hunger and the sustenance that lie at our very core.

It is God for whom we long most deeply, God whom we sometimes find it so difficult to feel and perceive, and it is God who is the endpoint of all our journeys, in this life and the next.

Remember the algebraic equations that made your 5th hour class a living hell all the way through eighth grade?

They all had some incomprehensible string of letters and numbers followed by the dreaded phrase: “Solve for x.”

God is the x hiding in the string of letters and numbers and the x in the final worked out solution.

But we are forever thinking we have reached the solution only to discover it leads to another question. Continue reading

What Is Martyrdom, Really?

The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.

I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.

It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.

What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?

How would that affect our understanding of it?

And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?

Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.

He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.

For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.

That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.

Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.

But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.

What does it really mean to be a martyr?

And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading

“I Am The Gate,” But You’re Not Going to Like It

They say you preach the sermon you most need to hear, and today I’m definitely writing from a place where I need to hear a good word.

Every week I talk with two colleagues about the lectionary texts and we brainstorm sermon ideas together. We had a good conversation and came away with a solid direction on how to work with John’s gospel this week.

My week turned out to be busier and crazier than I anticipated, and it’s only now, on Friday afternoon, that I’m getting to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be.

And by today, rather than the confident theologian I was a few days ago, I’m finding that I’m the one who needs to receive a message of grace and hope.

A former parish of mine had some tough news this week, and along with being very sad for them, it brought up all my emotional unfinished business around my time there.

I honestly thought I had laid a great deal of that to rest, but life has a sneaky way of reminding you of your feet of clay any time you start to really get comfortable and secure.

So let’s go to the text together and ask to be taught, to be healed, to be loved.

What we notice first is that of all the Good Shepherd Sunday texts (years A, B, and C) this gospel is by far the most abstract.

Jesus clearly has something he wants to communicate to us, but his layers of symbolism are so dense that it’s difficult to understand what he means beyond the obvious.

In fact, John even tells us outright that this one is going to take some drilling down: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Traditionally this text has often been used as a means of exclusion.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

People have used this saying to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, labeling as the proverbial “thieves and bandits” anyone who is “unorthodox,” whether that means you have the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, politics, liturgy, etc.

“Not everyone is going to get saved,” is the message the powerful have sometimes taken out of this text.

“Jesus doesn’t love everyone,” is the subliminal but far more honest attitude underlying the pious concern for being “correct.”

Today I find myself reflecting on a time when I was enforcing boundaries in the way I thought was right, and some other people were challenging those boundaries in a way they thought was right.

We ended up calling each other “un-Christian” and our relationship broke apart.

We each insisted we were the rightful gatekeeper and the other was the enemy, the thief and bandit.

The result was disastrous, and I know we all carry our wounds from those days even yet.

What I think I realize more consciously now is that the farther we are driven into anger, fear and woundedness, the harder it is to see any shades of subtlety. Continue reading

Seven Miles From Jerusalem, Chased Down By Jesus

As you all remember, the Road to Damascus is the story of when the Apostle Paul had a vision of Jesus and was so overcome by the glory that he was knocked off his horse and went blind.

The Road to Damascus moment is an incredibly vivid and immediate experience of God that instantly changes your life forever.

Many people in the Bible have Road to Damascus moments besides just Paul. Moses sees the burning bush. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. The shepherds tending their flocks by night are overwhelmed by the heavenly host of angels.

Each of these is a life-changing experience of God that floods the senses and sets one’s soul ablaze with the Holy Spirit.

But we aren’t studying the Road to Damascus moment in our Gospel lesson today.

We’re given the Road to Emmaus.

The Road to Emmaus is the polar opposite of the Road to Damascus.

The Road to Damascus is marked by suddenness, awe, intensity and clarity.

The Road to Emmaus is shadowed by fear, uncertainty, grief and delay, and the final, healing understanding comes only in the aftermath. 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 Day: Back to Galilee

“He is risen! Alleluia! Now get back to work!”

That seems to be the message from the angel in the Gospel of Matthew text that we read today.

There are a great many shocking things happening in this story—an angel, an earthquake, the guards collapsing comatose in fear and astonishment.

But the angel has a very straightforward and pragmatic message along with the stunning news that Jesus has been raised from the dead. “Return to Galilee.”

What does that mean?

Well, we have a choice as to what it means.

It means, first of all, to return to where it all began.

Galilee was where the disciples lived when Jesus called them.

It is where Jesus began his ministry.

The reality is that the disciples have to return to Galilee no matter what. But they have a choice as to what it means for them.

Are they returning to Galilee because Jesus’ life and ministry ended with his death?

Will they give up and go home?

Will they leave this part of their lives behind them and go back to normal, responsible family and community life?

If they disavow Jesus, they could probably get their old jobs back.

They could pick up their fishing nets, embittered, cynical, and angry at Jesus, who promised them everything and then got himself killed, but secure and comfortable in the old, familiar ways.

Or they could accept and experience the Resurrection. 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