“Awake My Soul: Selected Sermons from Year B”

Parson’s Porch books has published a book of my sermons. I’m honored that they thought these words would be helpful for folks beyond those at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, and I couldn’t be happier with what they have done.

Parson’s Porch has a mission of “Turning Books into Bread.” All proceeds the publisher makes from these books go to helping the poor in the Cleveland, Tennessee area.

Sermons are written more for the ear than the eye, and they are by nature contextual. Even so, I hope these words will have meaning for those who read them and communicate something of the grace and peace of God in a world hungering for both.

You can purchase the book directly from the publisher here:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=PHQ3JCYB2TTLU

Holy Days for All

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As we gather for sacred worship opportunities during Holy Week, I am mindful of all those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot be present with us around the Table of the Lord, or in the darkened sanctuary stripped of color, or even on the day when we shout “Alleluia!” against all odds that death itself has fled from the power of God’s “Yes!,” God’s life. So many are pulled these Spring days in so many directions, and others, because of illness or other life circumstances, must be at home or the hospital while we gather. Yet, all are part of the family of faith, and these sacred traditions are for all.

I am posting below the text of the sermon from Maundy Thursday service last night, along with the Order of Service for tonight’s Good Friday Tenebrae. I do pray that all within our church will be able to mark these days here among the gathered community. But if you are not able to be here, I hope you will, alone or with other family or friends, take time to prayerfully read the texts and prayers and sermon. As you are able, talk about them, and especially about the great love of God expressed in such profound ways in these stories. In this way you can join with the church here and around the world in these ancient traditions.

May the story of this week take up residence within you and transform you, so that you may be a blessing to this world that God loves and for which Christ died. May you receive the gift Christ offers.

Receiving and Handing On – A Sermon for Maundy Thursday – April 17, 2014

1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Paul says, “I received from the Lord.” I received…

The first thing to do on Maundy Thursday is receive.

Jesus takes the disciples’ feet in his hands – each one in turn – washing feet calloused and dirty from lifetimes spent on fishing boats, walking the dusty roads of Galilee – takes them and pours clean water over them. What a gift he offers! The master takes the form of the servant, the leader taking off his outer garments, placing a towel around his waist, becoming as nothing before them. A gift. Grace.

 But then he gets to Peter, and Peter cannot receive it. Peter goes from outright rejection – “You will never wash my feet!” – to over-reaction – “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”

But notice Jesus, full of grace, gently returning Peter to the one thing, the most important thing on this dark and holy night – receive. “You do not know now,” he says to Peter, “but later you will understand.” Just receive.

 I understand Peter’s reluctance. I share it.

We come to this night ready to hear the new commandment, the mandate, to love one another as Jesus has loved us, to get out our symbolic towels and get on with the ministry. We’re pretty good at washing feet.

This room and the adjoining rooms throughout the winter are filled with homeless men and women whose feet we gladly wash in providing a meal and a bed and a friendly word – hospitality. So many of you answer the call to be involved in that ministry, putting on your towels, getting out the water, and getting to work. 

So many of you wash the feet of children and youth and adults in this place by teaching classes, being covenant partners for Confirmation students, standing at the doors of the church and providing hospitality to friend and stranger alike. We are good at washing feet. 

And you go out in the community with your towels and basins – whether the feet belong to Graceworks clients, or Habitat homeowners, or residents at Hard Bargain – people getting back on their feet after tornadoes and hurricanes in New Orleans and Oklahoma City and New York, or the small vulnerable feet of children in the Red Light district in Mumbai – you are out there, so many of you, answering the call of Jesus to love one another as he has loved you.

Stephen Ministers and Leaders, cooks in the kitchen, laborers in the playground, standing with the vulnerable, speaking up for the voiceless; it’s enough foot washing to cause a flood of grace. Our basins overflow, our towels are soaked, our hands are shriveled. This is a community of faith that answers the call to serve others, and knows how to get its hands dirty. Most of the time, we get it. We want to follow Jesus’ example…we want to go and wash one another’s feet. 

But before we go and do, before we grab a basin, before we do anything – we first have to receive. Jesus calls us to stop and sit, to allow him to wash us. The disciples must receive the ministry Jesus offers. They have to become vulnerable. “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Stand in that place where the healing waters of grace are flowing, allow the waters to wash over you, share with Jesus your life, in all its barrenness, allow Christ’s peace to flood your heart. 

Jesus’ words go right to the heart this night, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 

Jesus comes close to us tonight, washing our feet, feeding us bread, pouring the cup. I think sometimes we are afraid of his proximity, frightened of his gaze, anxious that in this quiet place we might have to be vulnerable, to drop the mask that says everything is fine, to allow our brokenness to become known. And so we get really busy, inside the church and outside of it, making ourselves indispensible. Don’t worry about us Jesus. We’re fine. We don’t want to be a burden. Don’t worry about our feet. They’re really not that dirty. 

And yet, to be part of him is to receive his grace, his washing, to risk the knowledge that comes from intimacy. To allow Christ to wash us is to allow the story to enter our lives, to take up residence in us, and to personally affect us. We are called to nothing short of transformation. 

On “A Prairie Home Companion” several years ago, Garrison Keillor told the story of his uncle who, at family gatherings during Holy Week would read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year, when he came to the verses describing Jesus’ betrayal, he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until he was able to continue the reading. Keillor said that his uncle took the death of his Lord so personally.

I think I’m preaching to the choir. I think you sense the need to receive. You have found a way, in the midst of so much else that is no doubt pulling at you on this beautiful Thursday, to come to this quiet place, to share a meal together, to break the bread and drink from the cup, to pause in the headlong rush from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday to enter the story, and by God’s grace, to have it enter you, to have it grasp your heart. You have come here tonight to receive – to take it personally.

My prayer for you, and for the church that gathers at table around the world on this holy night, is that we will receive from the Lord, and that in this receiving we will be transformed, so that we may rise, take up our towels and basins, and love one another the way he has loved us.

Paul says, “For I received from the Lord, what I handed on to you…” May we receive it, gladly. Amen.

Good Friday Tenebrae Service – April 18, 2014

Call to Worship

Come and see the beloved Son of God.

He is high and lifted up.

Come and see the Ruler of the nations.

He is high and lifted up.

Come and see the Savior of the world.

He is high and lifted up.

Evening Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,

on this sacred and solemn night

when we see again the depth and mystery

of your redeeming love,

help us

to follow where you go,

to stop where you stumble,

to listen when you cry,

to hurt as you suffer,

to bow our heads in sorrow when you die,

so that when you are raised to life again

we may share your endless joy. Amen.

(adapted from Book of Common Order, the Church of Scotland)

Good Friday Readings

Psalm 22, 1-2, 7-8, 14-22

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Hebrews 10:16-25

John 18:1-14

John 18:15-27

John 18:28-38

John 19:16-42

Everything I Once Believed about Grief Is Wrong

christopherjoiner:

For all who grieve, words of wisdom and grace here, as well as testimony to the power of memory.

Originally posted on Kairos Corner:

I woke today to the thought that has greeted me every March 8th since 1990: “My sister would have been…”

Fifty-five. That’s how the sentence ends this year. My sister would have been fifty-five.

Twenty-four years removed from her death, I still live the truth of what Rick Lischer describes in his book Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son:

“Grief is a series of caves–dark, multiple,and unfathomed. You do not explore them. You fall into them. Which means you are constantly righting yourself and daily, sometimes hourly, recovering from little plunges into unrequited longing and despair.”

It’s certainly not hourly, or even daily, but every now and then something triggers a memory that plunges me into a cavern of longing and despair. Sometimes the cavern isn’t deep and I quickly return to whatever I was doing. Sometimes the cavern seems bottomless.

I once believed that grief had…

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Ashes

“It is more appropriate to speak of this God in categories of fidelity than of immutability, and when fidelity displaces immutability, our notion of God’s sovereignty is deeply changed.” – Walter Brueggemann

“Remember, you are dust.”
I do. 
This, of all my memories,
Is most keen.
The memory more faint
Is of a God who is dust,
Not from any hint of mortality,
But solely from loving the likes of me.

Remember us, ashen Christ.

 

 

 

Release and Embrace: A Brief Lenten List

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday this week, a time set apart to breathe, renew, reflect, to be still and know the deep grace that sustains all things. I share this brief list as an invitation to you to join with me in observing a holy Lent:

1. Release certitude. Embrace humility.

Paul says we live by faith, and not sight. And yet, we all prefer sight any day. We’d rather be certain, we’d rather exude confidence, we’d rather win our culture’s never-ending competitive race than admit we could be wrong. But the truth is, we could be wrong, about most things, and especially matters relating to God. That’s why it is faith, and not certitude (sight), that Paul commends. What might be transformed within us and in our relationships if during Lent we released the need to be right and embraced humility?

2. Release the virtual. Embrace the real.

I love my glowing screens. I love social media. My son is able to talk every day with his girlfriend in Toyko, in real time, and see her face, and she his. This is a remarkable technology. Social media has made it possible for me to connect in meaningful ways with friends the world over. But the other day I was driving through the neighborhood on a sunny, unseasonably warm afternoon and saw three children standing at the corner, all looking at their phones. The gift of the day, the gift of one another, the gift of play – all these gifts remained unopened for the sake of the glowing screen. I feel we are neglecting these greater, more immediate gifts for the often fleeting promises of technology. Could we, during Lent, embrace one hour a day or more when we shut off all the glowing screens, left all the virtual worlds we inhabit, and spent that time with the gifts right around us?

3. Release time. Embrace time.

I heard someone recently say that the most valuable commodity we have in today’s world is time. I think that’s why everyone – children and adults – love snow days so much (I’m writing this on a rare snow day here in Tennessee). It is the grace of all that time, time that has managed to escape the clutches of our overly-scheduled lives, time that has slipped through the ties that bind it so tightly to our fast moving days. The snow falls, covering the earth with a blanket of white, and with it, the comforting, healing presence of uncounted, unhurried, healing…time. During Lent, could we find a way to embrace snow days in the spring – blocks of unscheduled, agenda-free time? Lent is an invitation to release the anxious time by which we live so much of our lives and embrace God’s time – in prayer and meditation, in worship, in acts of care and compassion. Far from adding one more more thing to an already crowded calendar, Lent invites us to embrace a different calendar, one that intersects with our calendars and redeems them.

Lent is a time to release and embrace. What would you add to this brief list? My prayer for all who read these words is that the grace of this season and the God who meets us in both the release and the embrace will bring you renewal and hope.

We See in a Mirror, Dimly…

This may be my favorite passage of Scripture. I cannot tell you how many times I have read it at a wedding, sending these ancient words out over a bride and groom staring back at me nervously, and behind them a buoyant congregation, faces smiling through tears of joy.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

The words come toward the end of Paul’s at once devastating and heartbreaking letter to the troubled Corinthian church. The overriding tone the Corinthians convey is pride, a self-satisfaction that has divided them into communities of the like-minded. And so it is left to Paul – not known for humility himself – to remind them that the beating heart lying at the center and at the end of all things is love. Without it, we are nothing. Forget it, and we are reduced to the clanging symbols of ugly division and incomplete faith.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

I think these words should be posted above every entrance to every church in the nation, a reminder that after we have sung all the hymns, prayed all the prayers, made all the pronouncements, preached and heard all the sermons, and read all the passages, our primary posture before God, one another, and God’s beloved world should be humility,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

I am thinking about these words today as I prepare to lead a workshop for my presbytery on Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m thinking about all those couples who have heard these words read as they stood in front of the sanctuary. I’m thinking about those who long to stand in that place and hear the words spoken over them, but cannot. And I’m thinking about those of us being called to discern for our own day what God intends marriage to be and do. I see faces of friends, colleagues, beloved children of God, standing in different places, believing different things, tempted to separate, yet longing to find common ground.

In the midst of it all, Paul’s words describe the reality we feel.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

The world is rapidly changing. In just this past week, a federal judge struck down a same sex marriage ban in Texas, the Republican governor of Arizona vetoed a controversial bill that would have empowered people to refuse service to same sex couples based on religious conviction, and a new survey was released showing a majority of Americans support same sex marriage – a huge shift in just ten years. 

I believe if these trends continue, same sex marriage will be legal in all fifty states in 10-20 years and will have widespread cultural acceptance across both political parties. 

The question for those of us in the church is how we are going to respond to these realities. How will we address these changes in our theology and practice of marriage? How will we respond to gay and lesbian people who are members of our churches, who come to us asking us to bless their marriages? How will we respond to same sex couples who join our churches, sing in the choir, volunteer in the missions and ministries of the congregation, and seek to be part of us in every way? What is our call when children raised in the church come back home to it later in life with their partners, asking to be married?

These are not hypothetical questions. These are the very real pastoral situations that are already happening in the seventeen states where same sex marriage is legal. This reality is what drives the efforts this summer at our denomination’s General Assembly to redefine marriage, enabling PCUSA pastors to perform these weddings in states where it is already legal. And this reality is what frightens a great number of church members who believe such a change will alter a beloved institution and create more chaos in a world that feels to have gone already badly awry.

The discussion has the potential to divide us even further. But it doesn’t have to be this way if we remember,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

If you are tempted to dismiss the people opposed to the re-definition of marriage as ignorant, or hate-filled, or out of touch, remember that they are part of the body, their concerns are heart-felt and have the weight of a rich and ancient tradition behind them, they are motivated by love for their brothers and sisters, and

“We see in a mirror, dimly…”

If you are tempted to dismiss the people in favor of the re-definition of marriage as faithless libertines, or biblically uninformed, or against the gospel, remember that they are part of the body, their concerns are motivated by real-world experience, and they are motivated by love for their brothers and sisters, and 

“We see in a mirror, dimly…”

I think the vast majority of Presbyterians are sitting on the edges of their seats, listening for a word from God, torn within themselves about the right direction to take, hoping to discern gospel in the clamor of so many competing voices. They could do worse than hear from us, before we say anything else – 

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

 

 

Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

It happened again yesterday. I lose track in the last nine years how often the question comes, but for some reason yesterday was a tipping point that sends me today to the keyboard and this blog.

Here’s the question (asked sometimes kindly and sometimes with less kindness, but always basically the same):

“Why are you still in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Don’t you know it is in decline because it is too liberal/too conservative, too traditional/too trendy, too political/not political enough, etc.?”

Well, here’s why.

1. I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints (since no one person or church or doctrine can capture all of God), and you will encourage your people to never stop learning. Which leads to…

2. Because God is big, we have a lot to learn. We have ten PCUSA seminaries in the United States. Count ‘em. Ten. We have sixty-five PCUSA-related colleges and universities in this country. Which is not a typo. That’s a lot of higher education institutions for a denomination our size, and there are lots of conversations about closing some of them down. Whether they all make it or not, the fact that we value the education of clergy and laypeople enough to invest in these institutions is itself indicative of a very important denominational value: we believe because God is sovereign and we’ll never know all of God there is to know, our leaders should be life-long learners, exposed to the depths of the tradition, and given the tools to interpret not only scripture but the congregations we serve and the world in which we live. John Calvin said that Christians should never fear knowledge, no matter where it comes from, because any time we learn more of the truth about the world we are learning more about God. You will rarely find a Presbyterian dismissing science or running from an insight because it might challenge her or his faith, and you’ll rarely find a Presbyterian who doesn’t place a high value in thinking for him or her self. Which makes us a rather diverse and disputatious lot…

3. We fight a lot, but we fight fair. If God is sovereign and education is paramount, it follows that if you have ten Presbyterians in a room you’ll have at least twenty opinions. We spend a lot of time in groups talking about what it means to follow Christ, and sometimes those conversations get heated. But we spend a comparable amount of time making sure all voices are heard and all perspectives are honored. Decision-making is therefore messy and slow, and we all spend a fair amount of time complaining about it. But we’ll take messy and slow if it means honoring all the people of God in their rich diversity. And we realize diversity extends beyond the relatively small boundaries of our little denomination, which means…

4. We think it is important to play well with others. In any city in America, you will find Presbyterian (USA) folk partnering with other Presbyterian denominations, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, and and many others in the work of the Spirit in the world. We welcome their members to take Communion at our tables and their ministers to preach from our pulpits. We see ourselves as a small part of a much larger family of faith, and we have much to learn from them. We do not believe that the Presbyterian way is the only way. Why? See #1 above. Lot’s of things follow from #1, including the last reason I am still Presbyterian (USA)…

5. The world needs our witness. Jonathan Sacks says in America we no longer broadcast, we narrow-cast. It is possible to  construct our world in such a way that we can go through our day never encountering an alternative point of view. Our politics seems irreparably polarized. Ideology trumps everything else. And when you look at religion, it is much the same. Denominations splinter into churches of the like-minded. People run from church to church looking for places that “fit” their own world view. Special interest groups dominate the conversations within denominations. The world and the universal church need to see a group of people who know how to stay together even when they do not always agree, a group of people who believe at the core of their faith that they will never know all of God there is to know and who therefore refuse to narrow-cast. The PCUSA does not do this perfectly, but it does try to be this kind of witness in a world that desperately needs it. It defies the easy categories our culture is so good at imposing (and my interlocutors are always asking me about) – liberal/conservative, traditional/contemporary, Democratic/Republican.

That’s why I’m PCUSA. Still. Because my primary identity is Child of God, a God so much bigger than the categories we seek to impose. The five reasons above will probably not satisfy the people who ask the question of me, but in the end I’m not trying to satisfy them. I’m just trying to be faithful to my call. And I’m so very grateful to be able to do so among these sisters and brothers in our little corner of Christ’s big Church.

Jesus and Christianity

I saw Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” on the Daily Show the other day.

At one point, John Oliver (the interviewer) reveals that Aslan is a Muslim (“one of those Muslamic people”). Aslan first responds that he is not out to offend Christianity, saying that his mother and his wife are both Christians and his brother in law is a Christian pastor.

Then he says, “But I do believe firmly that you can be a follower of Jesus and not be a Christian, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus, if you know what I mean.” Oliver knowingly responds as the audience erupts into applause, “Yes, I think…I think I know EXACTLY what you mean there.”

I think I know what he means as well. I remember when Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish woman who is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said to our congregation, “I really, really love the teachings of Jesus. I wish more Christians did as well.”

It would be easy for me to get defensive of my Christian tribe here. I could remind Aslan and Oliver and Levine that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest an easy split between the historical Jesus and the church that sought to preserve his story and preach his message down through the centuries. I could remind them that at its best, Christianity embodies the Spirit of Christ, teaching peace in a world of violence, love in a world of hatred, healing in a world of unbounded brokenness. They might even agree with my defense.

But the reason the audience applauded so heartily and Oliver agreed so readily with Aslan’s statement that you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus is because it seems on the surface so very obvious. To the casual observer of the church, it seems that Christianity is more concerned with being on the right side of ideological issues than with feeding the hungry, more infatuated with power than identified with the powerless, occupied more with purity than with the plight of the poor. Those who take even a few moments to read the story of Jesus discover a vast chasm between much of what the church has been and done over the centuries and what in fact Jesus calls us to be and do.

So yes, it is possible to be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus. Sometimes that a description of me. I’m afraid some days I find it easier to go through the motions of religion than answer the radical call of discipleship. Any honest Christian would have to say that we are all a mixed bag of success and failure at living out the demands of Jesus for life in the kingdom.

So I welcome other Jesus-followers, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, to help me in my journey. I long for companions along the Way who take Jesus as seriously as I try to take him, who are willing to shape their lives by his teachings, who are able to catch me when I fall and put me back on the path. And because, as a Christian, I believe that the life of Jesus reveals the very life of God, I welcome the fellowship of all who celebrate that life.

What an interesting gathering it would be if we all got together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and anybody else who simply wants to follow Jesus – and encouraged one another to live our lives shaped by the patterns of life Jesus taught and lived. Perhaps then the day would truly dawn that Isaiah spoke of and Jesus affirmed: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

I Believe

Not long ago someone, upon learning my profession, asked me, “How can you believe all that stuff?”

“What stuff?” I asked.

“That there’s a man in the sky who does magic things.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said.

“Do you pray?” he asked, in a tone that was less like a question and more like a challenge.

“Yes,” I replied. “I pray every day. I’m praying for you right now.” I smiled to let him know that last bit was a joke, trying to lighten the mood. He was not smiling.

“If you pray, then it seems to me you believe in a magic man in the sky. Such thinking is a hold over from humanity’s primitive days, when they thought the sun and moon and fire were divine…” He went on like this for some time. When he finished, I tried to respond to his points. I thought I did a pretty good job, bringing the full force of my divinity school education and twenty-five years of ministry to bear. When I had finished, he looked at me with genuine perplexity.

And then he, his voice full of sarcasm, said, “That’s really nuanced. How many Christians do you think really believe that way?” Then, answering his own question, he said, “Almost none. Christians believe in the magic man in the sky. They believe that because they believe in him, they are going to heaven and I am going to hell.”

I went away from that conversation disturbed and encouraged. I was disturbed at the misperceptions people who stand outside of Christianity have about our faith. And I was encouraged because I knew I served a congregation filled with thoughtful, engaged, and, yes, nuanced believers. I know those are not mutually exclusive terms, because I live and work among people who live them out every day. I know you do not have to have a seminary degree or be a minister to have this kind of faith, because I know doctors and lawyers and carpenters and accountants who manifest a deep faith in something a little more substantial and mysterious than “a magic man in the sky.”

There are millions of Christians living in the world who expose my inquirer’s caricature for what it is. To believe is not to assent to the outlandish and unbelievable (the magic man in the sky), but to literally “give one’s heart” – which is the root meaning of the word “believe.”

I was intentionally vague in this piece about the specifics of my response to my interlocutor. I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the nature of belief, using the Apostles’ Creed as a basis. I am curious about how my readers would have responded, but even more so, I wonder how you think about belief. What do you mean when you say, “I believe…”

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