Archives: Epiphany

Come and See: The Unreturned Invitation

“Come and see.”  I discovered something new as I studied these words in Gospel of John, and it totally changed how I think about them and what I think they mean.

In our gospel passage today, we read, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”

Nathanael is doubtful.

He has the prejudice that probably many of his friends had, that Nazareth was a do-nothing backwater town.

It would be like hearing that someone from the local junior high basketball team had just been drafted by the NBA.

Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

So Philip invites Nathanael to come and see for himself what the big deal is with Jesus.

But the I don’t believe Philip says those particular words or makes that invitation just out of his own inspiration.

Jesus has already said these words of invitation himself, just a few verses earlier: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”

Philip’s “come and see” invitation to Nathanael is born out of Jesus’ “come and see” invitation to him. It all begins with Jesus.

And Jesus is not displaying a resume and a list of qualifications that make him the Lamb of God.

It is an invitation to experience it yourself, with no prerequisites at all.

Just show up, and see what Jesus is doing.

That is an invitation that Jesus is making to us all the time.

But the disciples, in their usual loveable cluelessness, spend the next weeks and months mostly failing to understand what Jesus is trying to do.

They’ve made a start—Jesus asked them to come and see, and they did. And Philip invites Nathanael to come and see—they have learned that they need to extend the invitation to others.

But the problem is that the invitation to “come and see” is all about Jesus in his role as a miracle-worker and potential king and rescuer of Israel.

It’s all about what Jesus can do that is eye-catching and extraordinary, that bends the laws of nature and gathers a crowd.

It’s not about actual relationship with Jesus.

Jesus invites the disciples to come and see, but they think he’s just inviting them to see miracles like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish.

They will come and see, but they’re coming to see the wrong things. Continue reading

Is Your Baptism Incomplete?

What does it mean to have an incomplete baptism?

That is the question suddenly confronting the believers in Ephesus we read of in our lesson from Acts.

Paul arrives and says to them, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’”

We might initially assure ourselves that this story has nothing to do with us.

We were baptized into Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the name of God the Father. Our Trinitarian credentials are secure.

But to read this text on that literal, surface level is to miss what it has to teach us.

Let’s take a step back and ask in what ways we were baptized into John’s baptism, why that was valuable, and what might still be missing from our baptism.

How are we failing to live into the full baptism of Christ? Continue reading

We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?

Do you hate your body?

I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.

And that is a tragedy.

We are members of an incarnational faith.

We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.

We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.

We call our collective self the Body of Christ.

And yet we hate our own bodies.

We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.

What is wrong with this picture? Continue reading

The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading

Jesus Sets Us Up

In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.

Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.

And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.

The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.

Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.

Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.

And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.

Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.

The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.

In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.

Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.

It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.

But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.

There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here. Continue reading

Trump: The American Shadow Concretized

Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.

I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.

The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.

And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.

Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?

President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.

I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.

I think we have a deeper problem. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

The thing about being a fish is that you don’t know that you’re swimming in water.

The thing about being an American is that you don’t know you’re addicted to success.

For the fish, the water is its whole world.

It does not even register on whatever primitive consciousness the fish may have that it is in this liquid medium, and that there is another whole world of air and space that exists outside of it.

Unfortunately for the fish, he can’t survive outside of the water, so he’s probably better off not knowing about the world of air.

We humans are in a similar situation.

From virtually the day we are born, we are taught to orient ourselves toward success.

As we learn to walk and talk, we receive praise for each new word and each new step.

As we grow up and go to school, we learn how to get the affirmation and attention we need by conforming to the expectations of adults and peers.

And as adults, we climb the career ladder, try to make more money, get a bigger house, take more impressive vacations, get more promotions.

We count each trophy our children earn and tick off each box on their college prep resumes.

There’s nothing wrong with this orientation toward progress per se.

In fact, it helps us accomplish a lot of good things in our lives.

If we didn’t value and strive toward success, we never would have learned to walk and talk and read and get into college or get a job.

We need success to get the basics of life taken care of.

But just like the fish, there is a whole world outside this water of success orientation that we don’t know about. Continue reading

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.

Sometimes we act as though it might.

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

John the Baptist, Total Rockstar

The older I get, the more I admire John the Baptist.

He, like Mary and a few other people in the Bible, are all the more remarkable for the fact that they at times achieved Jesus-like moments of spiritual realization, while being fully human themselves.

And yet their moments of humanity, where they clearly can’t keep up with Jesus, make them all the more endearing.

Stop for a moment and consider this incident with John in our gospel today.

This is the culmination of his ministry—proclaiming to the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

He went through all the years in the desert, years one assumes were necessary to understand the message he was to deliver.

Then he baptized Jesus—what a pinnacle of joy! He has prepared the way for the Lord, and now announces him to the world.

But then it’s all over in the space of a few seconds.

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

Just like that, end of story.

John is no longer in the picture.

His disciples have just abandoned him to follow Jesus.

John’s ministry is over in the space of ten seconds, in one conversation.

John is no longer important.

He’s no longer necessary.

He has lost his job, his friends, and his purpose.

And it’s only downhill from there. He’ll be in jail before long.

What kind of reward is that for his faithfulness?

But this is what makes John the Baptist so remarkable, and so worthy of our admiration and emulation.

This is what led Jesus to say, “Among those born of women, not one is greater than John.”

John, somehow, by virtue of some divine experience, was able to let everything go so that Jesus’ mission was accomplished.

John let go everything and everyone he loved, giving them all freely to Jesus, leaving him with nothing.

How did he do it? Continue reading

The Great Pattern, Or, There Can Be No Disaster

It’s rather an ignominious start to Jesus’ ministry, but you have to read past the end of our gospel lesson to realize that.

When the curtain closes on our passage from Matthew 3 today, it’s a beautiful happy ending.

John baptizes Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness,” God declares him the beloved with whom God is well pleased, and end scene.

Sunlight, water, voices from heaven, the devoted John and the interested crowd—it’s a perfect set-up.

This is the debut of the Lamb of God on the world stage.

What’s he going to do next?

What intriguing sermon or salvific healing or jaw-dropping miracle will he do to kick off his earthly work?

Well, if you take a look at Matthew 4, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

The last sentence of Matthew 3, which we read this morning, is, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'”

And the first sentence of Matthew 4, which we did not read this morning, says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

Ouch.

That’s the climax of the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Continue reading