Archives: Year A

Being Challengers

Each generation has at least one event that marks it forever.

People never forget where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, or when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks.

One of those pivotal historical events was the Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was only 4 years old and don’t remember it at all, but I have heard the stories of family and friends of the horror of watching the space shuttle lift off and only 73 seconds into the launch, explode and disintegrate.

Many American schoolchildren witnessed the horrific tragedy in real time.

Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the Challenger as the first civilian to travel into outer space, and so the launch was being broadcast into thousands of American classrooms that day for the students to watch.

What was intended to be a spectacle of scientific progress and brave new American frontiers in space turned into a heartbreaking catastrophe in an instant.

Seven astronauts died in the incident, and seeing America’s best and brightest go up in flames on national television had Americans asking for answers.

President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the tragedy. Its members included familiar names from the space program such as Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong, as well as Boeing engineers, a Nobel prize winner in physics, a CIA aerial surveillance expert, and several Air Force generals.

The sad findings were that the Challenger disaster was completely preventable.

The scientific proximate cause was the malfunction of something called the o-rings that connected parts of the spacecraft, which failed in the cold temperatures of the launch. The failure of the o-rings led to pressurized hot gasses escaping, which then ignited and caused the explosion.

But the literal scientific explanation did not answer the bigger question: why did this happen?

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.

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

War And Baptism

Today we baptize three beautiful children. We enact the ancient rites and rituals of the church that we have practiced for thousands of years.

Their parents are entrusting them to this community to baptize them.

But a question remains. We baptize them–into what?

What do they become by being baptized that is different from who they are now?

Baptism induces a permanent and irrevocable change of state.

They were created in the image of God, but today they are baptized into a community, an identity, and a calling.

In a very real sense they are being ordained to do a job.

They, and you, are in the priesthood of all believers. Baptism marks the transition into this work.

As we read in 2 Peter, “You are…a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So what does the work of the priesthood of all believers look like?

We get an important part of our commission in Peter’s sermon in Acts today.

Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ…”

“Every nation,” Peter says.

“Peace by Jesus Christ,” he says.

This text struck me to the heart as I read it this week as day after day we seemed to be marching toward a war with Iran.

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Why Are You Searching For Me?

Today we hear the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke. And his first words are a question.

I have long been fascinated by Jesus’ questions.

He asks 307 questions in the gospels and only answers 3.

And so every time I run across one of his questions, I’ve learned that it will almost always lead me to unexpected spiritual places.

Given that asking questions is one of his primary modes of interacting with people, I shouldn’t be surprised that the first words out of his mouth in this gospel are a question.

“Why were you searching for me?”

That’s actually an incredibly relevant question for all of us.

Why are we searching for Jesus?

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Christmas Letter from the Brood of Vipers

“You brood of vipers!”

I had to practice that in the mirror to make sure I said it with suitable drama.

It is one of the great lines in the Bible, a thrust and a twist of the knife from the original fire and brimstone preacher himself, John the Baptist.

And if you ask any preacher if they haven’t fantasized about thundering that line from the pulpit themselves they are either A. lying, or B. catastrophically boring. Well, today was my chance. #ministrygoals.

I love John. John is brilliant because he cuts directly across the saccharine images of Advent and Christmas that saturate our culture today.

John does not coddle us with visions of a tender child in the manger, lambs sleeping sweetly in the stable, or even a serene and peaceful Blessed Virgin making her stately and elegant way toward Bethlehem with beautifully coiffed hair, clean skin, and unruffled robes.

John the Baptist is having none of it.

John’s Advent is rude, abrupt, and disorienting.

His primary message is, “Wake up, people! Your life is not working! You are going to rue the day if you don’t face up to the fact that God is about to rearrange your life completely. Something is coming that will change everything. Winnowing fork! Unquenchable fire! Holy Spirit! Brood of vipers!”

So while I love John for his passion and apocalyptic angst, I also fear and dread his words a bit.

I know I need his wake up call as much as if not more than anyone else.

After all, John’s main target in this text is the religious professionals, so my number is up.

But I’ll tell you the fascinating truth about John the Baptist.

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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

Friday: The Rock and the Handmaiden

All week we have grappled with our dual nature.

It began on Palm Sunday. We started by shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, and ended shouting for his crucifixion.

It’s bewildering and exhausting being knocked from pillar to post, being confronted with our best selves and our worst selves, hardly knowing from one minute to the next who we will be.

Are we Jesus’ faithful disciples, pledging to be with him to the end and actually going through with it?

Or are we his betrayers, selling him out to those who would kill him and running and hiding when the trial comes?

We face the dichotomy of our divided selves one more time today, on Good Friday.

We are two people in this story.

We are Peter, and we are Jesus’ mother Mary.

We are the ones who deny him, and the ones who will not be kept away from him but stay at his feet until the bitter end. Continue reading

Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy

The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.

There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.

Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?

Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.

Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.

It’s just gone, like it never happened.

But that is not redemption.

God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.

Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.

Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.

They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Standing Up for Where You’re Wrong

This gospel is always one of the hardest to deal with in a sermon for me, because it convicts me so deeply.

Jesus sets forth a very clear and simple standard for our lives as disciples, and I know how badly I’m failing at it.

Am I feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger every day?

Maybe if I stretch the interpretation and say that I’m feeding the spiritually hungry, I can give myself some cover.

But honestly, I’m a fundamentalist and a literalist about these types of texts, and I know the truth about my life.

Jesus in the gospels virtually never tells us what to believe.

He tells us what to do.

And what he tells us to do over and over again is to care for and empower the poor, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable in our society.

I fear that I’m not really doing that, at least not in any way that requires much sacrifice or initiative from me, and I doubt I’m alone in this room in that cringing realization.

Reading a text like this honestly, and facing up to the fact that we’re not doing what Jesus has asked of us—that is a painful, frustrating, guilty and helpless state of mind.

We call that state of mind “being convicted.”

It hurts so much that I started to ask: what is the value or the function of this feeling of conviction in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Anita Hill, Sexual Harassment, and the 10 Virgins

Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

 

 

The floodgates have opened on the reality of everyday experience for American women.

Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, and the number of women who have not experienced sexual assault is vanishingly small.

In the circle of women who are most dear to me, several have been raped.

I myself had what I would describe as a semi-consensual sexual experience in college that had deep repercussions for me.

And with regard to sexual harassment, the reaction of most women I know to men who are asking, “Is it really this prevalent?” is, “You mean you didn’t know?”

There are few of us who do not have strong emotions about this cultural moment.

I have talked to straight male colleagues who are frightened.

They are examining years of their lives in retrospect, wondering if they ever crossed a line somewhere and will find out about it on the front page of the local paper.

I have talked to male colleagues who react with scoffing dismissal, insisting these accusations are a fad and a bandwagon for every opportunist holding a grudge.

Other male colleagues have reacted with sensitivity, solidarity, and commitment to being part of a solution.

The female colleagues I have talked to have had a range of reactions as well.

Some have had to shut down all news and social media in their lives because the constant barrage of sexual harassment allegations has triggered their own memories and swamped them with PTSD.

Some who have not dealt with outright abuse or assault have felt guilty or privileged compared with those who have.

Many are deeply cynical that any real change can occur in a nation that elected as president someone who freely admitted to sexual assault in what he called “locker room banter.”

And this doesn’t even begin to address the additional levels of harassment and assault experienced by those rendered even more vulnerable than those in my dominant milieu of middle class white women.

People of color and LGBTQ colleagues I’ve spoken to have shaken their heads as they’ve affirmed that my privilege has shielded me from additional layers of poisonous harm that bombard them from the outside world every day.

I think one of the questions everyone is asking is, “Why now?” Continue reading