Archives: Year B

The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and it is now officially one of my favorite verses in scripture.

This entire 1 Thessalonians passage is beautiful, every phrase packed full of practical encouragement in the life of faith that somehow manages to rise above plain advice and reach a lyrical joy.

These are words you can write on your heart, words you can carry around with you through the day, words you can call up when your soul is hungry for light.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Those are lofty goals.

I wish to heck I did rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, but I can guarantee you I don’t.

There are days it’s more like “complain always, feel sorry for myself without ceasing, and make my own life more difficult in all circumstances.”

How do we live lives drenched with rejoicing, governed by prayer, and radiating gratitude?

Both the how and the why of it are all contained in that concluding phrase: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

This phrase has more than one meaning, and we can see it through all of our scriptures appointed for today.

“The one,” of course, in “the one who calls you is faithful,” is God.

But there is more than one way to look at God’s call. Continue reading

Who Wants to Talk About Virtue?

Our Isaiah passage and our psalm today are among my most beloved scriptures in the Bible.

How many of us can ever read Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel’s setting of it for Messiah?

And Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” I count as one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the Dream of God in all of scripture.

I notice a shared image between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85.

Isaiah is commanded to proclaim: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Psalm 85 says, “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven…and our land will yield its increase.”

These are images of plants growing up from the ground, but we notice that the result is very different in each case.

We humans are like blooming plants, but we do not last. We fade and wither, and quickly return to the Earth, our source.

What plants grow up strong and stand fast forever? The virtues or values of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.

What do we make of this? What does it have to say to us in our walk of faith?

Advent is a good time to reflect on our mortality.

It is technically a penitential season, which means it is our opportunity to reflect on sin and death.

As grim as that seems, we don’t reflect on sin and death to be morbid or self-abasing. We do it because it helps us gain needed perspective, to see ourselves as those flowers that fade and the grass that is cut down.

And what’s the purpose of that?

To teach us to cherish every moment we have in this mortal life, and also to remember that no matter how big the mistakes and regrets we have, they too are as fleeting and mortal as the grass in the sweep of the long story of our loving and forgiving God.

So we learn from our texts that virtue lasts: truth, righteousness, mercy, and peace.

What does that actually mean? Continue reading

Good News: The End Is Nigh

You have no idea how tempted I was to get in the pulpit today wearing a big sandwich board sign that said, “The end is nigh!”

It’s Advent, and the texts chosen for us to study and reflect on in the Advent season are often chaotic and dramatic, foreshadowing the end of the world.

There are themes of apocalypse woven throughout, whether it is John the Baptist or Mary the Mother of Jesus talking about social apocalypse or Jesus talking about cosmic apocalypse.

We hear in our scripture readings on Sunday mornings about valleys being made low and hills lifted up, about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, about the axe being at the root of the tree and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.

As I’ve preached before, despite what the onslaught of saccharine Christmas commercialization would have us believe, Advent is not really a tender and gentle time. It is about dramatic and earth-shattering upheaval.

And our texts for this Sunday are no exception. Jesus tells us that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

That’s pretty intimidating.

And Isaiah seems positively eager for everything to go to hell in a handbasket.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

He can’t wait!

Here is another opportunity to remind ourselves how different our outlook is from the people who originally heard these words proclaimed.

What kind of people are eager to see society torn limb from limb and for God to erupt into history with righteous vengeance? Continue reading

When It All Comes Crashing Down

It’s all going to come crashing down.

That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ given to us today in our gospel lesson, straight from the mouth of Jesus himself.

How is that Good News?

That’s going to take some unpacking, so let’s get to it.

In our gospel from Mark today, Jesus is predicting the destruction of the temple.

In the year 70 C.E., the Jerusalem Temple, in which Jesus and the disciples were walking in this gospel passage, was literally destroyed by the Romans.

It was a catastrophe of the highest order, one the disciples could hardly imagine that day that they walked through it with Jesus, admiring the strength and beauty of the pillars and porticos.

The Temple was a sign and a symbol of so many things to the disciples. It meant strength, security, the loving presence of Almighty God in the Holy of Holies, and identity as a Jewish people.

Of course they love and admire it!

“’Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

This is not news the disciples want to hear, but they have learned enough to take Jesus seriously when he talks to them, so they follow up and ask him later when will this happen.

Jesus, in his delightful way of continually refusing to do as we ask of him to satisfy our agendas, doesn’t answer him. Continue reading

Out of Our Poverty

Good morning, everyone! Let’s talk about sex.

Perhaps not what you were expecting to hear from me right off the bat in the pulpit.

Well, we’re beginning with our story from Ruth, and you need a little cultural context to get the full meaning of this story.

Ruth has followed her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel after the death of Ruth’s husband, and they’ve been living from pillar to post.

They have no source of income. They cannot open a small business or draw social security.

They subsist on the gleanings from the field, which are the little bits of grain leftover from the harvest that get left behind.

They are literally living on scraps.

It’s not a sustainable situation, and they know that.

So Naomi says to Ruth: “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”

This is a euphemism. In this culture, to uncover a man’s feet while he was sleeping was to make yourself available for sex.

This is not the proper way of doing things, in case you haven’t noticed.

This was not an aboveboard courtship with polite chaperoned dates.

Naomi told Ruth to go to Boaz after Boaz had been drinking and make herself sexually available to him.

And she did it!

Ruth said to Naomi, “All that you tell me I will do.”

Ruth is taking an enormous risk. Continue reading

What Jesus Is Really Asking Us

Who doesn’t love blind Bartimaeus?

Here is a man who knows what he wants and goes after it no matter how much he embarrasses everyone else.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he shouts.

His fellow townspeople are mortified.

“Shut up!” they say. “Be quiet, you hollering maniac! The one celebrity we get in this town and you yell at him like a yokel!”

Bartimaeus doesn’t care.

He knows Jesus has what he needs and he is going after it.

He will not be silenced.

We could learn a lot about boldness in prayer from Bartimaeus. We could learn a lot about asking for what we need.

But even more important than Bartimaeus’ persistence in this gospel is Jesus’ response to him.

Bartimaeus is hollering and causing a ruckus, and “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”

This is one of the most important moments in the entirety of the gospels for telling us about who Jesus is and how he behaves in relationship with us.

Jesus does not assume that Bartimaeus wants to be made able to see.

He does not assume that Bartimaeus sees his blindness as a disability.

Furthermore, although Jesus undoubtedly knows what is best for Bartimaeus, Jesus does not force it on him.

Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Neither does Jesus impose his will on us, or make any assumptions about what we need or want.

He asks us as openly as he asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The ball is in our court, just as it was for Bartimaeus.

We can’t rely on God to solve our problems for us.

We have to answer the question Jesus asks.

What do we want him to do for us? Continue reading

How to Fit Through the Eye of a Needle

This weekend is when I led the retreat for the undergraduate course I teach at the University of Indianapolis.

Last year it was kind of a big flop.

I have been a church nerd my entire life, and I often forget that not everyone else is.

“Go away in the woods and think about God in silence for two days? Sounds awesome!” I say.

That’s not what the undergrads said last year.

So the course I’m teaching is called Monasticism, New Monasticism, and Rule of Life.

For the retreat, I decided to have them live a day in the life of a monastic, praying the monastic offices in community, etc., according to the rule of St. Benedict that they had studied.

You can imagine the reaction of these college students when I told them they were going to be monks and nuns for a weekend. Continue reading

What To Do When You Don’t Like What the Bible Says

I came very close this week to doing something I have never done before.

I came very close this week to cheating and not preaching on the assigned scriptures for the day.

There’s no way around it, they’re just awful.

But I’m not one to run away from a challenge, so let’s see what we can make of them. Even if we come out of this only having learned that there are some parts of the Bible that just do not feel like Good News, at least we will have engaged honestly and asked the Holy Spirit to reveal to us why we had to read these lessons today.

Job is a deeply problematic text.

People for generations have found comfort in Job’s stoicism through suffering.

I admire Job’s stubbornness, but God in this text?

As Virginia Woolf said, “I read the Book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” Continue reading

The Road to Heaven is Made of Band-aids and Duct Tape

I’ll admit that at first blush this gospel reading does not seem like “Good News” but instead “Confusing and Rather Alarming News.”

All of Jesus’ talk of cutting off hands and feet makes me a little edgy.

And by the time we get to the worm that never dies and the unquenchable fire, I’m squirming in my seat.

The bit about stumbling blocks brings back embarrassing memories.

I was an incurable klutz as a child.

Despite years of ballet lessons I continued to knock over lamps and crash into furniture until the immortal morning of the first day of my freshman year of high school when I opened the car door and promptly fell directly onto the ground in front of all my new classmates.

To add insult to injury later that same first day of high school—and I am not making this up—I fell over a rack of music stands in the hallway during passing period after fourth hour.

I went to lunch in tears, convinced I would be known for the rest of high school as that weird girl who falls all the time.

Luckily now I can hide my clumsiness most of the time but I still have the ability to wreak havoc both on my surroundings and my body.

Suffice it to say that if I took Jesus’ instructions literally about severing body parts every time they caused me to stumble I would be completely without extremities, missing my eyes, and probably bald since when I wore my hair long, I routinely shut it in car doors.

Those of us prone to tripping and falling get a little worried when the Christian life is described as a journey or path and Jesus himself is called the Way.

And yet who has ever walked the Christian path without stumbling? Continue reading