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On Preaching, Part 3

Oh hey, and we’re done!  If you’ve been cowering somewhere in a corner, waiting for this meta- preaching blog series to end, hooray!  Almost there!

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.

5. It’s alive.

There is an ongoing debate over whether manuscripts are evil, or whether the pulpit confines the Spirit, and roaming down on the floor is the only way to go.  Those are primarily cosmetic, I think.

The important thing to bear in mind is that any good sermon happens as a chemistry experiment between you, the Spirit, the moment and place in time where you are preaching, and the people who hear it.  Remove or change one of those elements, and it won’t work.

So you have to go into sermon-prep paying attention to ALL those elements.  Not just the ones that seem obvious.

You can’t get so caught up in the intricacies of the text that you forget that the people you’re talking to have to pay bills and go to school and work the next morning.  And you can’t get so involved in the grind of daily life that you forget to listen to the text, and the whisper of God.

Your job, as preacher, is to let the elements interact.  How does the text speak to people with jobs, to people who have retired?  To people whose spouse has just died, or whose parent has just died?  To people who have just had a baby or gotten married?  To people who have just started at a new school and don’t know anyone, or whose biggest problem is learning fractions?

And how does the text speak to the whole gathered community, in this moment in time?  How does this text sound different today, than it did three years ago?

At every point, while reading, while thinking, while writing, and while speaking, you need to leave room for the Spirit.  On a practical level, this means that, regardless of whether you use a full manuscript, notes, outline or memorize it, you need to know your sermon well enough that you can be watching your congregation at least 80% of the time.  It’s in this watching that the chemistry happens–you’ll know when you need to add something, change something, get louder or softer, in order to keep your audience with you.  And it frees you up if you realize halfway through that you need to go in a slightly different direction than you’d planned.

In this way, good preaching is like good liturgy (perhaps good anything)—you should prepare so much in advance that everyone watching assumes that you aren’t trying at all.

6. All you need is love.

I really love preaching.  For one thing, I don’t mind public speaking. Not everyone shares this affinity, which I understand.  (A priest I knew once told me he still took blood pressure medication before he preached, to help with nerves.  He’s a bishop now.)

But more importantly, preaching is an opportunity to talk about something that matters with people you care about each week.  That comes from love.

You need to love the people you preach to, or at least, be able to access God’s love for them (if you don’t know them).  And you need to love the message you’re telling them, or at least what it will do for your common life.

You can’t give a good sermon out of anger*, or disinterest, or annoyance, or disappointment, or anything else, really. Good sermons come out of being fired up with excitement about how much you like these people, and how much you want to tell them this ONE GREAT THING you’ve discovered.  As a preacher, you’re like a kid who worked all day on a finger painting, and all you want to do is show your mom when she comes to pick you up.

That level of excitement.

And that comes only from love.

And once you find that, you’ll be an unstoppable, utterly awesome, preacher.

*I should clarify that: anger, in general, isn’t bad.  Anger at injustice has led to some incredible sermons.  But it’s always rooted back in profound love for the people you’re serving.  Not at them.  There’s a big difference.

Once More, With Fire

So I’ve slacked off with the sermon posting of late.

This isn’t because I haven’t been preaching; it’s because I’ve been busy writing about other things, finding a house for Canterbury.etc.  Also, I am unwilling to inflict ALL SERMONS!ALL THE TIME! on you, because even to me, who loves sermons!  That seems like a lot.

But last Sunday was Pentecost, which found me at St. Luke’s, in Prescott.  Like last year, when I was spending Pentecost on the edge of the Wallow fire, this year Prescott was on the edge of the Gladiator fire which burned up the community of Crown King.  (That whole ‘fire and wind’ metaphor is sort of agonizing in Northern Arizona, let me tell you.)

Here’s what I said:

Pentecost, Year B

Acts 2

 

I have a thought exercise for you:  right now, as you’re sitting there, think of all the words we use to describe the Holy Spirit.  All the different metaphors you can think of that you’ve heard of for the Spirit.

Go on, I’ll give you a minute.

For some of you long-time Episcopalians, this might be a trick, since we’re not what you might call a charismatic denomination.  But we do talk about the Spirit a fair amount, even so,  even if we don’t dance in the aisles, or speak in unheard of languages, or  manage to clap in time.

So what you come up with?  Show of hands.  How many got wind?  Which we definitely know something about in this part of the world. How many got fire?  How about dove?

The Holy Spirit is that one aspect of the Trinity that we seem to love giving different names to.  Even starting in Scripture– no one can seem to refrain from going off in lots of different directions when describing this thing.  There’s the spirit that descends like a dove at Jesus’s baptism.  There’s the spirit that moves like a breath over the waters at creation.

And in the gospel, that word that Jesus uses about the Spirit , “the Paraclete” in Greek is all sorts of complicated.    Sometimes translated the Advocate, sometimes translated Comforter, it has legal connotations– like a lawyer in a court who comes to your defense, and argues for you.  In a good way, not a slimy, ambulance chaser sue you into next week sort of way.

All of these images, all of these pictures we have of the Spirit’s moving in the world– what are we to make of them?  This Pentecost, we remember the Holy spirit coming into disciples and forming them into the church, how do we follow in their footsteps and seek this elusive Spirit?

Frequently it seems that when we talk of the Spirit in church, we talk about the dove.  Or that gentle breeze that comes on lazy summer days.  We talk in terms of the Comforter.  Calm,  Happy,  Peaceful, steady things.  That old revival hymn– (sung) there’s a sweet sweet spirit in this place/ and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.

Good old hymn, nice picture…but is it a complete picture of the Holy Spirit?

Sure, the Holy Spirit is a dove, in the gospels,  descending on Jesus at his baptism, but as that dove descends, the sky is torn apart.  And a voice declares Jesus’ identity in a big scary booming voice, and his ministry begins.

And in John’s gospel today, when Jesus speaks of that mysterious Paraclete— he says that he will come and not leave us comfortless– that’s the part that the lectionary skips!  And testify on our behalf, which also sounds good.

But then there’s this part about how Jesus has still much to say, but cannot say it, because the disciples cannot bear it now.  So the Spirit will come and lead them and us into it, bit by bit,  this new and ongoing revelation of truth.  That sounds less warm and cozy by the second.

The spirit, when we see it in the Scriptures, isn’t just cozy, and it isn’t just safe. It doesn’t protect us from change and distress, and things that might annoy us–   It comforts, in the truest sense of the word.

It gives strength.  It fortifies.  The spirit empowers for ministry.

And that’s not always a calm, or peaceful or particularly orderly experience.  The Spirit in Acts comes like a blowing gust of wind, descending like tongues of fire.  The disciples all of a sudden seemed like drunk people, all talking funny, in languages they didn’t understand themselves. One minute, quietly in a room together, the next, spouting off in Mesopotamian.

On the one hand, speaking a lot of different languages is a neat superpower to develop.  On the other hand, it invited accusations of being drunk at 9am in the morning, and missionary activity to the ends of the earth.  Because now, all the earth, all of those people were included in the embrace of the baby church.  The fall of the Tower of Babel gets undone in the blowing wind of the Spirit.  The disciples get a power, and they get it for a purpose.  They get comforted, and sent, by the Spirit.

There are times we get lulled into wanting the Spirit just for the peaceful part.   We want that pretty white dove, and not the wind and the fire that comes with it.  Living in Northern Arizona, this is entirely understandable on a literal level, but that’s not how the Spirit operates.

The Spirit doesn’t lull us into passivity. It doesn’t take away all our problems–it helps us through them.  It moves us to service.  It stirs us, even when we are tired, and sure that we’ve done all we can do.  It shows us a new path forward, when we’re sure that we’re caught in between the hardest rock, and the toughest hard place you can imagine.

 

It is our breath, as the body of Christ.  When we were dead and raised again in baptism, we were sealed with the Spirit, we were empowered and called to serve the world in Christ’s name.  Like those dried bones in Ezekiel (which we heard about/was also one of the readings today) we are pulled together by God, and enlivened by the Spirit’s breath.

So yes, at times, the Spirit may be unsettling, and yes, it may be startling. The spirit may, at times, take us by surprise, and point us into places, and challenges that look crazy at first glance.  But that’s part of the journey, part of this relationship with a triune God that gives us not just “solace, but strength, not just pardon, but renewal.”

 

And if we want to be faithful to that early, frightened, exuberant church so many years ago, then we have to be ready of all of it.

 

Amen.

 

Look, in the sky!

Friday afternoon, as I was trying to avoid writing my sermon by messing around on Twitter, I got a call from St. Andrew’s in Sedona.  The priest was stricken by the dastardly flu, and could I jump in for Sunday?

While I felt really bad for their rector, I love this church.  They are wonderfully friendly, have very good coffee, laugh at my jokes, and, most vitally, sponsor the Annual Rummage Sale.  This is a yearly garage sale for the church, and they invite Canterbury to come help pack things up when it ends…and take whatever they want, for free, from the leftovers.  (The tales of the findings at this sale have spread far and wide among the hipsters in Flagstaff.  Checkered blazers!  Suspenders!  Record players!  Such irony as has never before been seen.)  The students look forward to this sale ALL YEAR LONG.

So I was pumped to drive down the hill and jump in for 2 services.

I had to keep reassuring people that the fact I seemed to know what I was doing was not a product of divine intervention, but because the liturgy was written down!  (And I had done this before.)

Here’s what I said.

 

February 24, 2012

Lent 1, Year B

Mark 1: 9-15

 

When I was a college student, I decided to spend the summer I turned 21 living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  I had received a fellowship to ‘discern‘ my life’s work, and I wanted to go; I had never been before.  My experience of being outside the country was limited to 2 weeks in France with my grandmother, and a weekend in London.  So, I found a place to stay, I found a volunteer job, I found people to help me.  My parents weren’t thrilled, but they weren’t stopping me either.

Right before I left, a friend from college asked me if I was afraid.  I can’t recall what she said, but I think it was something along the lines of “People blow up over there; aren’t you scared?”

I thought about it.  I wasn’t scared for my physical safety.  I didn’t have a clear concept of that.  I was twenty!  I was magic!

I was afraid of something else.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t come back the same person as I was leaving.  Of losing the last of my comfortable notions about the world as a good, safe place, with cooler, wiser heads (which weren’t mine) prevailing in the end.  And I didn’t want that.  I was fine as I was, thank you very much.  I could see the rough outlines of the wilderness demons staring at me from the distance, and I was not keen on heading there.

But it dawned on me , as I was kicked out of my taxi on the way to St. George’s the morning I arrived, because the driver refused to drive on the Arab side of town–I pondered, as I tugged my giant flowered suitcase down the street, that this was really not up to me at all.  I had agreed to come on this journey, so I agreed to be shaped by the experience, scary or not.  If my “Yes” had been authentic, then it had to be complete–prospect of demons and all.

Because, really, you don’t get faith without freakouts.  Or, rather, you don’t get the pretty heavenly dove without then getting driven into the wilderness.

 

In Mark’s version of events, we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism.  But in typical Markan fashion, what is a blissful, pastoral scene in Luke, and John, and Matthew, has elements of the traumatic here.  Jesus is no sooner baptised than the sky is ripped apart— this image which will reappear only at the crucifixion,  the Spirit swoops down on him and a voice booms out.  “this is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

and it’s this same descending spirit, we’re told, that immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness.

One minute a dove, the next minute, a harassing, driving force.  The Spirit is both,  for Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  And his call to minister, to be faithful is not just enlivening, pastoral words of love and comfort– those words in a broken world lead him necessarily into a wilderness of demons and turmoil.

 

Because for Jesus to live into the truth of what is said to him at his baptism, then he must go to the wilderness. He can’t just dance around it.  If Jesus is going to live fully as God’s Beloved, and proclaim that all creation is beloved as well, then that mission will take him into conflict with the parts of creation that were broken. The parts of the world that don’t operate as if all of creation is good, or if all people are beloved by God.  Jesus will have to confront those forces, in some way, in order to live out his baptism.  He’ll have to go to the wilderness, and even to the cross.  Jesus’s mission encompasses all of it.

 

And we are not so different ourselves.  When we stand and say what we believe, we walk into wilderness too  When we proclaim our belief in a loving God who made a good creation, we have to confront the fact that there are currently parts of creation that don’t seem so good.  That are broken, and out of step.  When we assert our belief that Jesus came so that all would know the unending love of God, we must confront the fact that right now, there are systems at work which hurt the children of God, and make them feel unloved.

 

In other words, that pretty looking dove will end up pushing us into some uncomfortable seeming places.  Places where we have to look at things we’d rather not have to see.  Think about things we’d rather not have to think about– all the broken and chaotic mess of the world.  We’d like to stay happily on that riverbank, hanging out with John the Baptist, but eventually, like it or not, the voice of the Spirit pushes us on.

 

And really, that’s what Lent is for.  Lent is for spending time in that wilderness, that discomfort.  It is for taking time to examine how our world fails to match up with what we believe.  There are ways in which our world is broken.  There are ways in which our world is unjust, and there are ways in which we are broken, too.

 

Lent is when we stop and examine how well the way we live matches up with what we believe.  We say God loves unconditionally and without limits, and that we’re called to do the same–how are we doing on that score with the folks around us?  We say  we are called to forgive like Jesus forgave– how are we doing?

Our baptismal promises pledge us to respect the dignity of every human being, to see Christ in all people, and to work for justice and peace for all.  Do we live in a world that honors these promises of ours?

 

We won’t get it perfect.  But we are called into those uncomfortable places of conflict because we have been marked as beloved by God.  Because we, and everyone else, are so valued by God, that God has redeemed this world in the Incarnation, and God is perfecting the whole creation even now, and wants us to help out.  People of faith don’t get to sit back in safe denial on the riverbank. This is our chance to pitch in, in the various ways we’re called to.

 

When I got back from Palestine, after that summer abroad, I wasn’t noticeably different, not really.  Only a few things were different.

I had some trouble reading Middle Eastern history books for my thesis, because I got too emotional.  I got overwhelmed in the grocery store by all the food, laid out like a kaleidoscope.  I still can’t watch American news coverage of the Middle East. Small things.

 

But I would not trade that experience for anything.   I had assumed that being faced with the realities of poverty and violence in the world would make me an unhappier person, a colder person.  That didn’t turn out to be true.

 

Instead, ironically, I like to think I became a more driven, empathetic person.  I came back, determined to do everything I could to help, and then everything after that.  I was 20!  I was magic!

To my shock, the wilderness I had been skeptical of, the truth that I had been wary of, hadn’t erased me.  God was pulling me on, the whole time, and didn’t let me go alone.

 

So as we begin the journey of Lent, as we look towards our wildernesses, and we examine all the ways in which we are broken, the ways we fall short of who God knows us to be– be not afraid.  There is no brokenness so messy, no demon so wild, no wilderness so deep that the God who called in the first place is not there already.

 

Amen.

 

 

Don’t be a gum-ball dispenser.

The Gospel of Mark is somewhat difficult to preach on.  The writer/storyteller of Mark was not given to detail.  You get the impression that s/he was in some enormous hurry, and couldn’t be bothered to tell you what anyone was feeling, or why they were inclined to do what they were doing.  It happened–that was enough.  (And then, IMMEDIATELY, something else is happening.)

So we get a pericope like this week.  Aside from my discomfort with Peter’s mother-in-law’s first action, post-miracle: begin to cook for a party (Because of course it is!), I felt like the story was somewhat of a rehash of what came before.  He heals people!  He proclaims things!  People are impressed!  And on we go at a breakneck pace.

Sometimes, the only thing to do in cases such as these is to consult with others.  For this, God has gifted the postmodern-day preacher with social media, which overfloweth with sermon fodder round-about Saturday night.  Also, you should count yourself as extremely lucky if you have fantastic friends (like I do) who listen to your incoherent ideas, and nod understandingly, and kindly offer their own (much better) ideas.

Seriously, what did the actual olden-day circuit-riders do when they were stuck for ideas?!

February 5, 2012

Epiphany 5, Year B

Mark 1:29-39

 

Stephen Colbert is a comedian.  He has a TV show, in which he inhabits the persona of a narcissistic pundit, basically all the worst traits of the media talking heads cast into sharp relief, and rolled into a single person.

 

It’s a funny show, it’s popular, his book sold well.  Most people would consider that a career well accomplished.  And then he decided to create a SuperPac for the 2012 election.  So far, said PAC has raised over a million dollars, made generous offers in the SC newspapers to both the Republicans and Democrats to sponsor their primaries, suggesting it would be not unlike the Doritos Fiesta Bowl, and run several very surreal campaign ads, including one that declared Mitt Romney was a serial killer, because if corporations are people, how many has he killed in his time at Bain Capital?!

For about a year, Colbert has basically been playing with the intricacies of campaign finance law on late night TV, something normally left to lawyers, and which has resulted in lots of confusion, and some anger, among actual media people.   And all of this ends up revealing several things– SuperPACs can do just about anything they want, satire did not cease to be potent after Jonathan Swift, and at this point, your average young adult in Colbert’s audience now has a better grasp of campaign finance law than the average American does.  Turns out, the comedy serves a purpose.

 

Jesus, by this point in Mark’s Gospel, has been healing all over the place.  He healed the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue, as we heard last week, and so now, having finished with that, he heads home to Peter’s house, where he heals his mother-in-law. And then most of the town.  He’s on a roll.

But then, he up and quits.  Why?

 

Aside from being well- deserving of a break, at this point in the narrative, Jesus also needs a pause to regroup.  To refocus on his mission.  Which was not just healing sick people, although that was a part of it.  His mission was bigger, more inclusive than that.

 

For first-century Palestinians, healing was great!  But lots of people could heal.  It’s not like they had regularized medicine to any great degree– healing and cures tended to occur somewhat spontaneously and regularly, since the expected course of events was: you got sick, and that was the end of you.  Healers were a dime-a-dozen.

 

So were charismatic preachers.  So were political figures.  The crowd outside the door was used to people like that.  and it was perfectly content to have Jesus stay there in Capernaum, dispensing healings and miracles like a really awesome gumball machine.

 

But Jesus decides to leave.  Because for Jesus, the important part is not the healings themselves, the important part is what the healings point towards.  What the miracles signify.

 

These healings aren’t meant just to prop up life the way it was– -they signify a world that is beginning to be profoundly changed.  The healings of Jesus point to the ultimate reality where all creation is reconnected with God.  Where the signs of our brokenness, our failings disappear.  A reality where all humanity, all creation is redeemed, and functioning as a whole.  A holy creation, in harmony with itself and it’s creator.

Because the individual Healings are great, I have no doubt but that the people really appreciate it, but healings are only part.  They’re like signposts,  breadcrumbs.  They’re too small.  Jesus’s job wasnt to be the next magic worker in the Galilee, healing the comparatively few people who wandered by.  It was ultimately, to heal the whole world.

 

And we see this starting even in the story– Peter’s mother in law, once healed, gets up and serves them.  Aside from my immediate thought that the poor woman had just escaped death, and she couldn’t get a moments peace out of the kitchen? She sets a pattern that the other recipients of healing will follow.  Out of her healing comes caring for those around her.  She becomes an icon of a reality where all are cared for, as she feeds those who come to her.

 

Ultimately, we have to take over and play our part in holy creation.  We who claim to have knowingly received the healing love of God have to become similar icons of this new reality, where all are fed, all are welcomed, all are loved, and all creation is made whole. This is what we promised, right, at our baptism– will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 

But so often, we too, get stuck in the ‘gumball dispenser” mode.  We perform the modern day- nonJesusy equivalent of individual healings,both as individuals and as a church.  We tell ourselves that the way it has been is the way it always has been, and always should be, Amen.  We tell ourselves that telling the truth  isn’t nice, and God wants us to be nice, above all else.  And we devote ourselves to the time honored work of making everyone like us, or at least, not publicly hate us.

 

And there is again, some value to this. It does  make a lot of people happy!  It’s safe!  Sometimes, it’s even helpful!  But is it what we are actually called to do?  Or are we still just performing for whoever wanders by our door, and not pointing to our wider message, not living our new reality.

 

Because we’re meant to be tiny little  outposts of God’s new world, each of us, and all of us together.   And this is a calling that will, at times, require us to be seen as not nice, and will confuse and befuddle people and may even make them angry.   But we’re called to live and proclaim the wide message of God’s redeeming work in the world to everyone, even if that gets us in trouble sometimes.  We’re meant to play our part in the drama of creation,and recreation that God is working out in the world, with our individual talents and strengths, and quirks and weaknesses, and foibles.  Each of us.   All of us.

 

Jesus can heal people.  You and I have proclaiming to do.

 Amen.

No One Is Alone

There are some things you experience, and you immediately think, “Yea, and verily! This shall be a sermon!”  (And then, you immediately vow to stop watching so much Downton Abbey, because it’s making you talk funny.)

For me, Into the Woods was one of those experiences, and I’m only amazed it took me ten (!) years to write a sermon about it.

Here is the sermon:

January 29, 2012

Epiphany 4, Year B

Mark 1:21-28

The musical “Into the Woods” tells the familiar fairy tale stories of

Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and her prince, Jack and his

beanstalk, and a baker in search of a child. All mixed together and put to

Sonheim’s music. Everyone pursues their wishes into the woods, crossing

paths as they go, their stories faithfully narrated by a trusty narrator, until,

as expected, everyone gets their happily ever after ending.

And hooray! Everyone sings and dances as they celebrate the fairy-tale

truism that the good have been rewarded, the naughty have been

punished, and those who sought their wishes have gotten what they

wanted, and the story is over.

The only hint that this might not actually be the end of the story, is the sight

of a beanstalk rising up into the sky, a figure of a giant descending, and the

narrator shouting, “to be continued!” as the curtain falls.

On the end of act 1.

Apparently, this was not enough of a hint for one preview audience, and this group

of senior citizens departed, all excited over this delightful, but short, new

show they had seen, before the director chased them to the parking lot and

brought them back so they could see the second Act.

Which is where it really gets good. The first act is about familiar stories of

getting what you want: the second act is about the consequences to

everything and everyone around you when you get what you want.

And that’s the part that we have the most trouble dealing with. Whether it’s

fairy tales, politics, sports, or whatever it is, we have a hard time

comprehending that the world is constructed like a pond, and actions ripple

outward– they don’t stay magically confined to one person or place. Throw

a rock into the pond, and the ripples extend on and on. The consequences

ripple out in all directions. You, me, rock, pond, water…

The world, as it turns out, is profoundly interconnected.

And so, when Jesus comes along, and starts talking to demons, like in

Mark tonight, remember that rock thrown in the water, and remember the

beanstalk rising in the sky. Because the reality that the world is in fact

interconnected and intertwined is something we tend to struggle with on a

good day, never mind when we are also trying to wrap our heads around

the good vs. evil stuff.

Jesus has come into Capernaum, which is sort of his home base in the

Galilee. He heads into the synagogue and starts teaching. In response to

his teaching, a man who is described as “demon-infected” comes in, and

the demons start yelling at Jesus.

“what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to

destroy us? I know who you are– the son of the Most High.”

Its this weird quirk in Mark that the demons always recognize Jesus, when

no one else does, and also that Jesus himself really doesn’t want people to

know who he is– it’s the messianic secret.

It’s also this weird quirk, that upon recognizing him, the demon asks “Are

you here to destroy us?”

Now, there are a lot of ways to parse these stories of exorcisms in the

gospels. First century schizophrenia, some sort of mental illness, actual

demonic possession, or an elaborate metaphor that the writer of Mark

thinks is instructive. All of those explanations Work, sort of, more or less,

but as is usually the case when you start worrying about factual accuracy

over truth in story, they miss the big picture. All tree bark, and no woods.

But ultimately, there are two things at work here– big picture. The idea that

evil exists, and that evil is systemic, and can’t be so easily isolated.

And we know that evil exists. I doubt hearing me say that is a surprise to

anyone. Evil exists when people are made to suffer, when humans are

abused, when the goodness of creation is destroyed and shamed, when

the hope that is born in each of us is snuffed out by what we experience.

Evil exists– evil is what works against the will of God for a good and whole

creation.

And that’s tricky, because that’s not something that can be personified,

isolated, and easily eliminated. Hitler was evil, but Hitler didn’t pull off the

Holocaust by himself. Slavery was evil, but who, particularly, should we

blame for that? The slave owners, or the rest of the country who bought

the goods produced by the slaves so cheaply?

Whenever we start to believe that we can destroy all evil, just utterly

destroy this one person, group of people, this one idea, and it will all be

fine, and we’ll all be safe forever, then we have forgotten that the line between good

and evil runs not between people, not between political parties, or

ideologies, but straight through every human heart. And Jesus alone is in

charge of all that.

And in fact, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus in these stories, confronts the

demons. He names them, he calls them what they are– evil that afflicts the

creatures of God.

But he always heals the person. These are as much healing stories as

they are exorcisms. Jesus always sees the child of God within and

redeems it.

Because ultimately, no evil is so bad that it can withstand God. No evil is

so bad that it cannot be redeemed by Christ. The demons always lose.

Always. They always get cast out in the end.

When we call out the evil we see, when we confront it, we are taking part in

the work of God that’s already been accomplished and done.

So no, we are never able to save the world, we’re never able to destroy all

evil, but we don’t have to– God’s done that bit. All we have to do is shine

the light of Christ.

And when we do that, as small as it may seem, and as insignificant as it

may feel, we’ve begun to participate in God’s own story in the world.  And nothing on heaven and nothing on earth, changes the way that story ends.

Amen.

And for good measure–  the song referenced in the title:

Inconceivable

If my geeky brain serves correctly, there was an old form of preaching in Judaism wherein a rabbi would take the given text for the day, which was somewhere in the Torah, and begin his sermon somewhere entirely different, on a totally random verse elsewhere in the Tanakah.  Like if the assigned text was the calling of Abram into covenant with YHWH, you would start out by quoting something off the wall, like Proverbs 5:15 “Drink water from your own cistern; and fresh water from your own well.”

And from there, you’d basically leap-frog via associations both linguistic and theological through the scriptures until you arrived at the assigned verse for the day.  The farther away your starting point was, and the more associations you made, and the more verses you included, the more brilliant a preacher you were considered to be by the congregation.

I’m not about to try this out anytime soon (any more than I’m about to improvise jazz singing in the pulpit.  Other people’s art forms, as much as they might impress me, generally just make me look like a crazy person if I attempt them, especially out of context.)  But there’s something about the exuberance of the enterprise that I enjoy.  I like the idea that nothing at all, is off limits in preaching, and that we should silence the voice in our heads which pipes and says “Are you allowed to talk about THAT in a sermon?!”

To that end, I offer the following YouTube clip, for all things are better when performed by Legos:

And here is the sermon:

January 22, 2012

3 Epiphany, Year B

Mark 1: 14-20

In the movie, “The Princess Bride”, the villianous mastermind Vizzini kidnaps the princess Buttercup, with the help of the master swordsman Inigo Montoya and the giant Fezzig.  As they are escaping on their ship, Vizzini declares any chances that they shall be caught ‘inconceivable.’  And yet, as they continue to head for a neighboring country and safety, the pursing ship begins to catch up with them.  “Inconceivable” declares Vizzini!  Then Buttercup dives overboard, in a desperate desire to escape.  “Inconceivable!”  cries Vizzini!  Finally, upon reaching land, the band of miscreants ascend straight up the cliffs with their captured princess, only to be pursued again by the captain of the other ship.  Again, Vizzini pronounces this turn of events “Inconceivable!”  Inigo Montoya turns to him.  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

As Christians in 2012, we come quite a bit after those who first constructed the language of our faith–about 2,012 years after, to be exact.  Words like “repent!”, “grace”, “believe”, “faith” all started out meaning one specific thing, with specific connotations and allusions built in, and now, to us, they mean something different.  They sound different.

And this isn’t a bad thing.  It’s an effect of time, and Time, as Jesus points in the gospel, is not apart from the workings of God.  Time builds up, Time accrues for us down the line of history, and those of us who come after the earlier disciples and generations before have a lot more of this linear history to sort through–some helpful, some not as helpful.  But all of it there.

And so, when Jesus appears, after the arrest of John the Baptist, in today’s gospel, declaring that the Time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, so we should Repent, and believe the Good news….what is it that we hear, today in 2012?

Whatever it was they heard back then, evidently it was enough to inspire all these fisherfolk to immediately abandon their promising careers on the sea, their families, their homes, and tramp around in the wilderness after Jesus.  It was enough to make them get up and change their lives.  This declaration of “the time has been fulfilled, repent and believe the good news.” was some sort of freeing magic.

But for us today, sitting on the opposite end of the timeline….. Well, for me at least, it doesn’t seem that motivating, that inspiring.  It doesn’t sound like the sort of message that prompts all of Mark’s gospel– it sounds like a rather good bumper sticker on someone else’s car, or the title of a pamphlet someone would stick under my door.  Not something that’s going to motivate me to head anywhere at all.

Maybe the weight of time has squashed the message a bit.  Or maybe these words don’t mean what we’ve come to think they mean– all bumper sticker slogans and catch phrases.

And if that’s the case, then we should find a better way of explaining ourselves.  We should find some new words. Because if all we have to tell our story is advertising catch-phrases off the TV and slogans stolen from radio talk shows, then no one is going to be leaving their nets anywhere.  So maybe we need some new words.

Ok.  Let’s take a swing at that.

“the time has been fulfilled.  The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.”

For starters, “time” has two words in Greek.  Chronos, which is the linear sort of historical time that I’ve been talking about so far.  The sort of time where I can tell you that this service will probably take up 1 hour of your time– the very mundane sort of time marching forward.  But Jesus is talking about kairos, which is the sort of time in which God operates.  Time which isn’t on a line, that sort of thing we experience through our memory, or in our imagination, when past becomes present and merges into the future.  Time that bends and shifts depending on what is happening.  That’s what has been fulfilled.

The realm in which God works, where God is actually fully in charge, the kairos, has now broken through into our mundane timeline.  The kingdom of God, where the poor are taken care of, the outcast are welcomed, the sick are healed, the lame leap for joy, the oppressed set free, is emerging in our own world.

So we should do what?

“repent” has started to become associated with guilt, and shame, and feeling very bad about oneself.  Repent literally means turn around, to go back.  It’s an action, not a feeling.  It’s not a command to feel something, it’s a command to do something.  It’s a command to come back.  Come back home.

Come back home, and believe in the good news of what God is doing.  Participate in the emerging world that God is creating, right before our eyes.  Participate in the good news of a world made whole, where all are cared for, all are welcomed, all are loved, all are fed.  Because it’s starting right now, in the actions and person of this guy, Jesus, and you, you personally, are needed.

Imagine what would happen if we took that message into the streets.  Imagine what would happen if we went far and wide, proclaiming that God had jumped into our boring, broken, unfair world in order to make it whole, just and loving, and that everyone’s talents were needed in this new project.  If we really proclaimed that message, and backed it up with how we lived, how many people could stay in their boats then?

Could anyone stay as they had been before? If we really lived out the call?

Inconceivable.

I Love You; Now Change

This is a good week to be an Episcopalian.  In one exciting week, we get All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, and the Feast Day of Richard Hooker, our first proper Anglican theologian.  We get to loudly sing about the ‘one [who] was a teacher, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.’  We sing our Alleluias to the stirring Sine Nomine by Vaughn  Williams.  All in all, it’s a good week to shake off whatever complacency has crept into the heart over the plodding Ordinary Time of the summer.

(Also, we have Halloween, which I believe in celebrating.  What better way to emphasize unconditional divine love and grace than to freely distribute unearned candy to children you don’t know, who have dressed up in ugly and unappealing ways?)

As Episcopalians, also, we do not have Reformation Day.  This is a thing that Protestants*** have on or around October 31.  (Know how we have this liturgical time rule wherein feasts cannot move backwards, only forwards, and only certain feasts may eclipse a Sunday?  The ELCA, bless their late-blooming-liturgical-renewal hearts, have not such a rule.)  So my ELCA brothers and sisters celebrated Reformation Day this past Sunday, and since I was preaching at the church in Williams, a combo ELCA/Episcopal parish, I was asked to preach on the Reformation.

Here is what I said.

Proper 26, Ordinary Time

Matthew 23: 1-12

Reformation Sunday (ELCA recognized)

 

In seminary, I had a renowned Church History prof who used to refer to the Reformation as ‘The Great mistake’.  This drove the lone Lutheran in my class up the wall, every time he did it.   Fr. Wright would stand there, sort of looking all Mr. Burns-ish, and poor Mark would sit there, with steam visibly emerging from his ears, until finally, he flatly refused to study church history after about the middle ages with this guy.    This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

 

I was thinking about that this week.  Reformation, reform is in the air right now.  No matter where you look, people are calling for change, calling for something to give.  We can’t go on as we have been going, something has to change, something must be different, and here is what it is…..  People everywhere nailing their theses to the doors.  The GOP candidates have their ideas of what needs to change.  The Tea Party has their ideas of what needs to change, Occupy Wall Street–which has now spread to the streets of every major city in the country, they have their ideas of what needs to change too.  And certainly, if you put all of those people in a room together, their ideas will not line up.

 

And within the church too, three weeks ago, at diocesan convention, we passed a resolution, evidently the first in the whole church, asking for a special convention to be called, so that we could begin to reform the entire structure of the Episcopal Church as a whole.  I spent a lot of that weekend talking about committees, and constitutions, and canons, all those church-y c-words.  All that really boring-sounding stuff that is also pretty important because it is the foundation of how we live in community with each other.

 

All of that stuff, all of it, is changing.  Inside of the church, outside of the church, it’s all changing.  We are beginning to discuss things that we have not discussed in generations.  We are beginning to talk about things that we have not discussed maybe in the span of our lifetimes.

 

The theses have gone up on the door, whether we are ready for it or not.

 

Everything is being called into question.  Everything is being challenged.  Everything is being reformed.

 

Which poses the question–how then, do we live?

 

When we feel called to nail those theses to the doors of the cathedrals of the world, of the churches of our world, how does God want us to act?  When people come to us, posing questions that we hadn’t considered, that make us uncomfortable, wanting to reform the things that we hold so dear and unshakeable, how does Jesus call us to respond?

 

The early church started out as something of a reform movement.  Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, in a Jewish society.  From most of what Jesus taught, he sounded like the other reforming rabbis of his time– preaching the best of the tradition, of what was already there, and trying to draw the people back to faithfulness, and what they already knew.  Not trying to start something new.

 

But in times of crisis, people polarize pretty quickly.  It was one thing to offer critique and questions during a relatively safe period in Jewish history– it’s another thing to do it during a period when Rome has wiped out Jerusalem, and sent the survivors into exile.  And so eventually, what starts off as a reform movement within faithful Judaism, ended up as a different religion altogether.  And the past two thousand years have been marred by some pretty excruciating history between the two.

 

So the gospel reading stands as a stark reminder of that history.  It was Written by a community that was at war with itself and being attacked all the time by Rome, and that frustration, the hurt and betrayal seeps into the text.  We’re getting that part of Matthew where it’s the clearest.  There is name calling!  There are insults. And standing at this end of the past two thousand years, it’s hard not to cringe, a bit.

 

But, like I said, let it be a reminder.  A reminder of the choice that any sort of reformation poses.  The choice that was there, two thousand years ago, and the choices we have again today.

 

Because whenever anything, is faced with questions, with protests about what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, whenever anyone  is faced with those challenges on the door, we have to make a choice. Either open our arms to it, take it in and work through it in some way, or close it out, ignore it, and shut down.  That’s the choice.

 

The reason my old professor called the Protestant Reformation the “Great Mistake” was not that he was in favor of the pope, or in favor of selling church offices.

 

He lamented that the Roman Catholic Church split.  He was upset that the pope couldn’t listen to Luther’s critique until well after it was too late, and instead, punished him for challenging the church’s authority.  And in the ensuing years, the rift between Catholic and Protestant spread to include hundreds, if not thousands of offshoot little Protestant denominations, all because no one could sit down and talk through their problems in church.

 

That was the mistake.  The church couldn’t listen.  It made the wrong choice.

 

And like the frustration we see in the gospel, it helped fuel bitterness and conflict for generations.

 

Even though it can feel threatening at times, reform comes from love.  It comes from loyalty.  No one wants to fix something they don’t care about.  And so our choice, in our day, cannot be one of fear. We can’t be so self- protective, so crouched over in a corner that we miss where the Spirit is trying to lead us.

 

Because God, somewhat shockingly, does not give up on God’s people.  The same God who sent the prophets, and came down personally, still hasn’t given up on us, despite our continued attempts to be stubborn and sad.  God sends us reformers, and breathes the Spirit through our stale world, again and again.

 

The least we can do is listen.

 

Amen.

***  This would not include us.  ‘Protestant’ indicates a church that actually went and protested the Roman Catholic church, or some aspect thereof.  We, on the other hand, basically wandered away, in the dead of night, first in a huff, then slower and slower.  Finally, we sulked in our corner of England, when we realized that the pope had not chased after us, armies in tow, to win us back, in the manner of a romantic comedy ending.  It was traumatic for many.