Sunday, March 27, 2016

Digging in the Dirt

John 20:1-18


        Tuesday I traveled to Staunton to have my bicycle inspected and resurrected. Basically I made sure my brakes were functional, something that is critical when riding on the Skyline Drive.  Perhaps the real reason for the trip was after hearing of the tragedy in Brussels, I needed a chance to shut my brain off and think about something less important. Will UVA make it to the Final Four? How might the final episode of Black Sails conclude? Why I am standing so close to the golf ball after I hit it? You would think I would be consumed by Holy Week, but to be honest, the trip to Staunton was also an excuse to get away from Lent, Good Friday, and most of all Easter Sunday.

        So I dropped my bike off.  The owner tells me he will have it ready in less than hour so I excuse myself and go find a bite for lunch. On returning, the owner and another customer are having the most appropriate conversation for this time of the season.

        “What are you doing for Easter?”

        “I hope to get in a bike ride. What about you?”

        “I found this really neat idea called Texas Easter Eggs. They are made out of papier-mâché and filled with candy.”

        “That sounds cool.”

        “Yeah, we hide the eggs in backyard and let the kids find them. We are doing it Easter Morning. If you want to join us, we can ride later in the day.”

        I guess the owner didn’t want me to feel excluded so he asked, “What are you doing for Easter?”

        Here was my chance to show off my chops and win one for the home team. Unfortunately only thing I managed to say was, “I thought I might go to church.”

        “Really! You don’t strike me as the religious type.”

        With my ego, not to mention my vocational choice  bruised, I  left the shop I wondering how we have lost the most important day of our faith.       It didn’t take but a mile or two on I-64 to decide the culprit had to be the Easter Bunny. Who can compete with a rabbit capable of laying Cadbury Eggs? Then again the Easter Bunny has never reached Santa Claus status.  By the time I reached the top of Afton Mountain I came to conclusion the demise of our highest holy day could not be laid at the feet of a Trojan Hare. We, the faithful, are the guilty ones.

        We sanitized Easter.  We cleaned it up. The beginning of spring and Easter has become synonymous. In the South, Easter is the Sunday the dark suits return to the closet and men, for no logical reason, wear seersucker. Easter is the day when women return to white shoes. And no Easter is complete without a new Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it. By cleaning Easter up, Easter lost its meaning.

        Nadia Bolz-Weber, that famed, foul mouth, tattooed layered preacher has something to say on this subject. She was the guest speaker at an Easter Sunrise service at the Red Rock natural amphitheatre in Colorado. Allow me to share a few of her words.

        I was sitting on the edge of the rocks that Easter morning preparing to speak to 10,000 people. Praise songs were being sung slightly off-key by suburban moms dressed in matching outfits. Since it was worship, and I am a clergyperson, I had to pretend not to be horrified. Then came the liturgical dancers. I find liturgical dance neither to be neither liturgical nor dance. Whatever they are doing it is often performed by a bunch of liberal, middle aged women with a lot of scarfy things going on.        Then it was my time to speak. I said to the crowd, “Easter has become another word for church showoff day. We spiff up the building, put out the lilies, hire a brass quintet, put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have to do to empress the visitors. But I suspect on Easter Sunday Jesus didn’t look all the great.  He must have had dirt under his fingernails. Why else would Mary Magdalene think he was the gardener?

        I love that image. The writer Isaiah proclaimed God was going to do a New Thing. He didn’t proclaim it was going to be squeaky clean. If we identify Easter with the beginning of spring, why would anyone in their right mind want to celebrate nature’s warmth and beauty by being cooped-up in a building? But much more important, when we make Easter perfect, where is there room for broken people?

        Our misrepresentation of the new thing that God has done ENCOURAGES folks to flee to the mountains and the bike paths and the golf courses. Our beautification of something not so beautiful screams to the broken, the worn out, the rejected, the addicted, and even the curious that we will greet you with open arms when you clean yourselves up and become good righteous people like us.

        Place that image against the resurrected Jesus with dirt under his finger nails. Occasionally Deb will ask me to dig a hole in the ground so she can plant a new bush. I don’t really like participating in her gardening projects because it takes time away from riding a bike or hitting a golf ball. Plus when she visits the grandchildren, I have to water them and pretend they are an important part of my universe.

        But because I love her, I dig the hole. It never seems to be deep or wide enough. So I dig some more.  Since the hole has to be perfect, I use my hands to remove the last bits of loosened soil. Fertilizer is poured in and spread evenly. Have you ever read the ingredients to see where that stuff comes from? I wouldn’t suggest it. Finally the bush is lowered, the hole filled and the excess dirt removed. By the time the job is complete I am one holy mess. And so was Jesus.

        That is the unfiltered truth of the Easter Story. To quote Bolz-Weber a second time, God keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance and our addictions. God loves us back to life over and over and over again.                                  (stop)

        Perhaps I am naïve in thinking the lives of those two people I met in the bicycle shop aren’t as perfect as they appeared. Perhaps hiding Easter Eggs and taking a bike ride are all that’s needed to receive perfect harmony with life. Perhaps I am just a fool to believe there is a God who loves me more than I can imagine and a community that accepts me warts and all.  Perhaps I have been downright brain washed into imagining God would do anything to be reconciled to me. That is a lot of patience, and a lot of digging in the dirt.

        When I see you, not just on Easter Sunday, but every Sunday, I feel a spirit that entwines our joys, our sorrows, and our stories. Few of us claim similar origins or lifestyles. Our vocational experiences are vast.  I know most of you have been wounded and tragically some of that pain has come from a church. Yet here we are, not so much because of who we were but because of who God is.

        Some of you dressed up, some of you didn’t. Who cares! We have come to celebrate and follow the one who dirtied his hands for us.   What else is there to say except,

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.               Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Scandal of the Cross

Philippians 2:5-11


        Holy Week tends to be a struggle for this congregation. Many of you would love to hear a sermon affirming the power of God in the death defying act of resurrection. Some of you would prefer I explain why God would preordain death as solution to the wickedness of humanity.  A few of you wish we could by-pass Easter and spend more time on our moral obligations as the people of God. The rest of you just love listening to the choir. I am over simplifying the conundrum of Holy Week but Easter is complicated. Is it any wonder so many folks want to celebrate the joyous parade on Palm Sunday and skip right over to the Resurrection? The cross is a scandal, both in its horror and in pronouncing a crucified man to be the center of our faith. Preaching the cross forces one to ponder how God redeems the world through such a dark and most shameful act.

        What exactly happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? We know that a man known as Jesus bar Joseph was executed by the Roman authorities. Christianity emerged from the belief that this same man was resurrected three days later. From the moment Jesus son of Joseph was declared to be alive, questions were raised within the church concerning the significance of this miracle. Our inquiries today are not all that different.

        Who was Jesus?

        What was the role of God?

        How do Judas, Peter, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders fit into this drama?

        Who killed Jesus?

                Was it the political leaders?

                Was it the Jewish community?

                Was it the sins of all humanity?

                Was it God?

                Was it fear?

                Was it love?

                Was it us?

        For the first three hundred years of the early church disputes often became violent as the faithful tried to answer these questions. Eventually the dispute came to a head with the writing of the Nicene Creed. This document became the central faith statement for both the Orthodox and Catholic churches. But the conversation never ended.

        Recently I was attending a meeting of the Committee of Ministry with our Presbytery. We were discussing the faith statement of a person who will be teaching at Union Seminary and who desires to be a member of our Presbytery. I found it to be a beautifully written statement and was excited to welcome Dr. Vest as a colleague in ministry. One of my fellow committee members was not so thrilled. He raised questions concerning Dr. Vest’s understanding of the Atonement based an response Vest had written two years ago on his blog site. My go to answer on the doctrine of the Atonement has always been, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” I remain vague on how exactly that happened. My COM friend wanted a chance to question Dr. Vest on the details. Such is the world in which we live.

        One of the reasons we struggle with the details of our faith is because even the writers of the New Testament disagreed on what would seem to be the most basic question, who was Jesus? The answer depends on which gospel you read. The Jesus of the Gospel of John was one in the same with God from the beginning. The fate and elevation of Jesus to Godhood seems predetermined in a heavenly contract signed to assure the continuation of a covenant as old as Abraham.    In John and John alone we find the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. On hearing of his friend’s illness, Jesus almost casually tells the disciples the death of Lazarus was prearranged as a demonstration of both the power and intention of God.

John retreats from the sacramental language we find in the writings of Paul. In John, feet are washed, commanding the followers of Christ to be a servant people. There is no mention of Jesus predicting his body would be broken or his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. John does not disagree with Paul’s assertion that God was in Christ reconciling the world.  John’s contention is that the plan was in place long before Peter or Judas or Pilate was ever born. There is no mystery in the book of John, only truth.

The story of Jesus, as told by the other gospel writers is heavily influenced by the Apostle Paul. While John proclaims Jesus without sin and incapable of sin, Paul sees a man who strives for perfection but is tempted every step of the way. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke is much more human than the Jesus found in John. Matthew and Luke contain the birth narratives, each depicting the fate of Jesus resting in the hands of the faithful. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. This Jesus is often in conflict, struggling over the path God was asking him to follow.  This Jesus constantly asked the disciples not to reveal who they believed him to be. This Jesus is the one praying in the Garden hours before he is arrested. To quote the old song popularized by the Stanley Brothers, Jesus was “A Man of Constant Sorrows.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the perfection of Jesus is celebrated only after the perfect life has been completed.

Paul reveals his Christology by writing, “Be like Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.”


In the gospel of John we are asked to look at what God did and then we are asked to respond in a similar fashion. Wash the feet of others, talk to the woman at the well, have an intellectual conversation with Nicodemus. Just make sure, in the end, you feed God’s sheep.

In the gospels influenced by Paul, the struggle of being human is acknowledged. Herod tries to kill baby Jesus. John the Baptist is arrested. Jesus is in constant conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Most importantly, stories are told about people who are hurt and lost.

The Synoptic gospels are emotional. They center on suffering and acknowledge the deep ache of human life. The message becomes, as Jesus suffered for you, so God will continue to be with you in your suffering.

John takes a more intellectual approach. God is truly found in the deep conversations. In laymen’s terms John was written for the head and Matthew, Mark, and Luke for the heart. John acknowledges the cross, while the other gospels are dependent upon it. We need all four gospels, yet it often seems the more intellectual our theological discussions become the further we move away from the scandal of the cross. And the further we move away from the cross, the further we move from admitting our dependence on the grace of God.

All of this is confusing to me. I grew up abstaining from absolutes even when I absolutely thought I knew the answers.  That said, this is what I believe.

Did Jesus die? Absolutely.

Do I believe in the resurrection? Absolutely.

Do I find the cross to be scandalous? Absolutely.

Do I cling to the cross? Perhaps not so much on a good day when my mind is clear, but when the day is dark and my way is drear, ABSOLUTELY!    For it is in the grace of God that I find hope, it is in the love of God that I find inspiration, and it is in the mercy of God that I find life everlasting.

                                        To God be the glory, Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Poor Will Always be Among Us

John 12:1-8


        Nearly 40 years ago I was invited to a conference on poverty that took place at a Presbyterian Church in Washington. Most of my day was spent visiting various ministries that were doing their best to address issues of poverty, racism, crime and housing. It was a daunting task. 

        When the conference concluded I took an extra day by myself in our capital city. I went to all the usual places and then drove to the National Cathedral. When George Washington envisioned the land across the Potomac as a site for our country’s Capital, he also dreamed of a structure which would become our national church. The construction did not begin until 1907. Five years later the first services were held in the Bethlehem Chapel. When I first visited the Cathedral, construction was still taking place on the west tower. Work was finally completed in 1980.

        When I entered the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by its massive size. Having never been to Europe, our cathedral is my only connection to those beautiful works of architecture. I took the elevator to the east tower which is best known for its amazing view of Washington. I gazed out at the city, located the familiar landmarks, and then my eyes began to focus from afar on the sections of the city that had captivated my last few days.   I began to calculate the amount of money that had been spent over the previous 70 years to make this edifice possible. I compared that to the budgets of those dedicated folks trying to keep poverty from swallowing DC. Looking out at the capital, I wondered how money spent on the cathedral might have served God better on the opposite side of town.

        “The poor will always be with us.” How often have those words from the lips of Jesus served as both a justification and a rallying point to address an explosive yet permanent stain on our national landscape. Poverty in Washington is worse than it was 40 years ago. While I don’t have the numbers to prove it, crime certainly seems to be higher. I do know one in three children in DC go to bed hungry. The cynical side of me observed the cathedral towering over those children. I left with a narrow, certainly biased opinion of any church that sits upon a hill. Perhaps my 40 years my grappling with of this morning’s text has helped to soften my restricted vision.

        Jesus was visiting with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The smell of death was in the air. Just days before Jesus had reached into the tomb and grasped the hand of his dearly departed friend. Can you imagine what it must be like to sit with someone who had been dead for three days? Certainly the experience of Lazarus had to be the center of the conversation. What does death feel like? Did Lazarus see a bright light? Did he remember anything? Perhaps Martha remembered one moment Lazarus was having a normal day, going about his work, and then instantly he was gone. There was no warning and certainly no time for goodbyes. Hearing the conversation Mary looked at Jesus and remembered his words concerning what might greet him in Jerusalem. Overcome with the emotions of almost losing a brother, Mary grabbed ointment left over from the preparation of the body of her brother and began to rub it gently into the feet of her dear friend. It was a pure act of love. The death of her brother had left her shocked. His resurrection was still beyond her comprehension. Mary could not possibly have understood everything taking place but she knew death was eminent. She wanted a moment to grieve and say good-bye.

        The act of adoration was ruined by Judas.  His words should never be seen as a reflection on my courageous DC friends who work for Sojourners or Church of the Servant. He was a selfish worm who seldom saw beyond his next meal.

        “Why are you wasting these perfumes? Do you have any idea what they are worth on the open market? Imagine the mouths we could feed?”

Jesus replied, “The poor will always be with you. I will only be here a little time longer.”

        Jesus was literally right on both accounts. Poverty is still with us. Jesus was killed within the next two weeks. But to take those words literally gives the Judas’ still among us permission to ignore God’s holy intentions. The words of Jesus were never intended to eliminate the struggle to irradiate the dreadful sin of poverty. Thankfully, the presence of our Lord persists in the ministry of God’s people.

        When I served a church in Va. Beach, I was privileged to work with a group called St. Columba ministries. These folks evolved from a Presbyterian church that had closed into a ministry of compassion with folks in Va. Beach and Norfolk. The people of Va. Beach struggled to find a solution for homeless folks who had no place to sleep during the winter. City regulations eliminated the hope of a permanent shelter. So the St. Columba board approached churches in the area and asked each to transform their fellowship halls into a night shelter for one week. Churches responded and the homeless in Va. Beach had two meals and a place to stay from mid October through March. This program eventually expanded to other towns throughout Virginia. Ironically the program no longer exists in Va. Beach. Members of the same churches came together and decided a shelter, while a short term solution, was not the answer. These churches helped St. Columba to begin a program where folks were given short term housing and job training opportunities. Today, in Va. Beach every six months up to 24 men and woman are given the opportunity to leave the streets and start a path toward employment and permanent residence. The success rate has been remarkably high. 

        The physical presence of a church stands as a reminder that even in a world immersed in pain, God still calls us to be a people of justice and reconciliation.   I realize many churches spend a good part of their budget on staff salaries, the physical plant and other administrative items that might not go to feed the hungry. I also realize many churches struggle with finding the dollars just to keep the doors open causing mission opportunities to be set aside. But as I travel through our fair state, every time I see a building identifying itself as a place of worship I assume it wrestles with its obligations to its neighbors.

        On my second visit to the Washington Cathedral, I got up the nerve to speak to priest in charge of the daily ministries of the Cathedral. After letting off a little steam about how much money had gone to building such a magnificent building, I asked how all this effort was justified. His response was to share their mission statement.  The Cathedral’s purpose for existing is to be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in the nation, renewal in our churches, reconciliation among different faiths, and compassion in the world.  I smiled and said that sounded good but what were they doing to accomplish this. I then bragged how I was spending the week working with the Sojourners group who were trying to establish transitional housing in East DC. The priest nodded and complemented me on my dedication by saying, “Most folks would not spend 7 minutes much less 7 days in East DC. But they will come here. This weekend Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourner, is giving a seminar on poverty. He has also been invited to preach on Sunday.”

        “The poor will always be with us.” The good news is the church also continues to be among us. Sometimes it is a on a hill. Sometimes it is motivated by the vision of one person. Sometimes it is a light in a valley. Sometimes it is a community of folk who yearn to see beyond themselves. God’s spirit moves within us in ways that creates difficult and complicated conversations. But that same spirit, that holy catalyst, motivates us towards spiritual harmony, towards a renewal of fresh ideas, towards reconciliation and towards compassion with all people. We are the church, this confusing, intriguing, difficult body attempting to personify the wishes of our God.

        Sometimes when a text or my faith challenges me beyond my comfort zone I find myself returning to the beatitudes. You remember the beatitudes; it is that group of statements in Matthew that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To the originals I have added:

        Blessed are those with a different way of approaching my understanding God’s truth.

        Blessed are those who are willing to challenge me.

        Blessed am I when I am willing to listen.

        Blessed is each of us when we are willing to act, in our own way, for the benefit of others.

        Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, regardless if you sit on a hill or reside in a valley.

        Jesus is no longer with us, but the church is. Again I say, “Rejoice and be glad.”                                     Amen.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Building Bridges Instead of Walls

Luke 15:11b-32; 2 Cor. 5:16-21


When a story begins, “A man had two sons,” you can bet the bank that conflict is on the horizon. Think Jacob and Esau. Think Joseph and his brothers. If you must, think Cain and Abel. Each story begins with conflict that resulted in a Godly intervention. When Jesus began, “A man had two sons,” the listeners expected the worst.

This is a story of two boys coming of age on an unlevel playing field. The older son holds all the cards. Being an oldest child I could whine about all the responsibility placed on my shoulders. I could lie about how difficult it was to set a lasting example for my younger sisters but the truth is, with age comes advantage. My sisters know I am my mother’s favorite son. I was the first and they shall always be the later. We who were born first all know that with our elder status comes privilege.

The younger brother understood the house of his birth would never be the home of his future. According to tribal law, the older brother would eventually inherit the farm.  Therefore the younger sibling plotted a clean break from his existing circumstances. Declaring himself both mature and independent, he presents his case. “Father, let me make a life for myself. Bless me with what will eventually be mine, allowing me the chance to make you proud before you die. Let me expand on the legacy you have created.” Poor delusional boy, he imagined his intentions to be as legitimate as his petition. But they were not.

The inheritance the son was given had not been earned. Predictably it quickly vanished into the night. When nothing was left, the prodigal’s friends and his dignity disappeared. All that remained was a memory of yesterday. Fortunately, memory can be a powerful motivator.

When one is sitting in a pile of pig slop, and I imagine we have all been there, memories of the past often eliminate the reasons we rushed so quickly into the future. The son dreamed of his father’s farm, a place where even the lowest slave had a roof over her head. So this self-proclaimed man, who was still no more than a boy, cleaned himself up and headed home.

You know the ending. From a distance the father saw the son. He ran to greet his long lost prodigal. The reckless actions of the past were forgiven, thoughts of the boy becoming a slave were dismissed and a party was thrown in his honor. All that remained was a difficult but revealing conversation with an embittered older brother and the silent but haunting single word that must arise within the heart of any responsible person who encounters this story. 


When someone takes advantage our generosity, WHY is reconciliation our responsibility?

When someone lies, WHY should we care for them?

When someone disrupts our lives due to their immaturity, WHY must we be the adult?

WHY must we be the ones to build a bridge when a wall would be a whole lot more practical?

WHY does God ask us to be accountable for the irresponsible? WHY is God always seeking a way where no way seems feasible? WHY does God want us to pursue a future that seems rift with conflict, distrust and alienation? I wish I had a good answer. I don’t pretend to understand the mind of God and I don’t believe God desires us to part of process that further enslaves someone who has sinned. Yet there is no denying forgiveness and reconciliation seems real high on God’s priority list.

The night of the arrest of Jesus, the disciples once again listened to talk of the coming days. But this time his words seemed closer to home. Jesus talked about betrayal and desertion. Finally Peter got fed up with Jesus telling him what the disciples would or would not do. Using words that would later haunt him Peter proudly proclaimed, “Jesus, I can’t speak for anyone else but I will never deny you, I will never desert you, and if Pilate drags you off to prison he will have to drag me as well. Where you go, I will follow.”

Hours later Peter was hiding in the shadows, running for his life, denying he ever met Jesus. The next day, when Jesus died, Peter was nowhere to be found.

Days passed and Peter returned to his old life and habits. He went fishing. He wondered what had become of the brash and confident man he had once been. Seeing no future, he returned to a dark past, destined to be enslaved by a memory. But Jesus would not let him stay there.  “Peter, can you fix me some breakfast?”

Ever been in that situation where you know you are as guilty as sin and have run out of options. The excuses have run thin and the lies have been exposed. Now it is just you and your transgression, hanging in mid-air like a guillotine, waiting to begin its fatal descent.

The last thing Peter wanted to do was have breakfast with Jesus. Food would lead to words and Peter had no desire to talk about his denial. He preferred to crawl behind the wall constructed by his fears. But Jesus knew silence was an opium rather than a cure.

“Peter, do you love me?” How each syllable must have pricked the very soul of Peter.

“Peter, do you love me?” Peter placed his hands over his ears knowing what was surely coming next.

“Peter, do you love me?” There it was; three times; once for each transgression. Would Jesus now be satisfied?

Peter cried out, “Of course I love you. I failed, I might fail again, but I love you. Have mercy upon me.”

Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”


Nowhere in scripture can I find that a wrong, once forgiven, disappears. The stain and the consequences are as much a part of us as our DNA. What grace does is allows us to move forward. What grace does is unshackle us from the chains that would enslave us to our past.

But grace is not a one way street. Sometimes we are Peter. But just as often we are the one who has been wronged, or slandered, or lied about. That puts us in a difficult position. Why should I, the wounded, be concerned about the one responsible for my pain?

I don’t have a snappy answer. All I know is that in the story, the father welcomes the prodigal home. The inheritance is gone, never to be recovered. The past cannot be rewritten. But a new future can be scripted because a boy enslaved by his transgressions has been freed to try once again to be a man.

Desmond TuTu, someone who knows a little bit about being slandered and ridiculed remarked, “Without forgiveness, there can be no future for reconciliation between individuals or nations.”  

Dealing with the transgressions of nations is certainly beyond my pay grade. But being merciful, being grace filled toward someone whose name I know is only possible if I remember that grace is there to be both received and given.  Perhaps that’s what makes grace so scandalously difficult.

Help me God to live up to our covenant.          Amen