Friday, November 2, 2012

Healing the Dis-ordered Life

A sermon based on Mark 10:17-31
Preached on October 14, 2012.

Today’s gospel lesson from Mark is a story about how hard healing can be. Sometimes the cure is harder than the disease, so to speak. Right now you may be thinking, healing? What gospel did Anna think she read because the gospel that I heard was about a rich man and how it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Yes, I heard that same gospel too, and it was about healing.

What makes me so convinced that this lesson is about health as much, if not more than, wealth? I read a commentary that inspired me. Apparently, everywhere else in Mark’s gospel, when a person kneels in front of Jesus to ask him something it is always a request for healing – either healing for themselves or for a loved one. Here are two examples:

Mark 1:40-42
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Mark 5:22-24
22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.

In both these stories and elsewhere in Mark, the person making the supplication is kneeling and they are asking for healing. The leper is asking to be made clean, and Jairus is asking Jesus to save his daughter from dying.

The rich man in our story also kneels, asking for healing even though that doesn’t sound like what he is asking. The man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) The first thing that strikes me about this question is that Jesus reacts to being called “good teacher.” Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18).

Why would Jesus have such a reaction to being called good? Could it be because it was linked to the request about eternal life? By emphasizing that no one is good but God alone, Jesus could be suggesting that there is something wrong with the question that the man asks. The man asks Jesus because he thinks Jesus is good enough to know the secret to earn eternal life. The man asks what must I do – which means that the man thinks that there is something he can do to obtain eternal life. Jesus said that no one is good enough and so entering God’s Kingdom can’t be about being good enough but has to be about something else.

Jesus asked the man if he had kept all of the commandments, and the man said that he had. At that point the text tells us that:

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Jesus loved the man. To others the man might have been rich, successful, blessed, self-righteous, or self-occupied. But to Jesus he saw a beloved child of God who was trying to do all the right things but was lacking one thing.

What was he lacking? By all appearances, the man lacked nothing. He had money and possessions, which would have given him some status, and the man had ethical behavior under the law.

What did the man need healing from? Only Jesus knew for sure, but I believe that the clue is in what Jesus prescribed: giving away his possessions and following Jesus as a disciple. I believe that the man’s problem was self-centeredness and isolation from other people. This is a dis-order in that it is not the order that an ideal life should take.

The cure from self-centeredness is to do away with whatever is making you self-centered. In Mark 9:43-48, Jesus tells his disciples that if their hand causes them to stumble, then cut it off, and if their foot causes them to stumble, then cut it off. It is better to go through life maimed in this way than to be prevented from the Kingdom of God in the next life.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

There is Enough (A Prayer)

A parishioner shared this prayer with me, in response to my sermon a few weeks ago on immigration (where I said there was enough for all people). This prayer makes a great grace before meals as it reminds us when we are being fed that there are others who are without. It encourages us to think about why in a land of plenty there are some who are without, and then to think about what we can do to change this.

Lord, there is plenty to eat for the hungry. 
There is enough to keep and to give, enough to buy and to sell; 
enough to serve and to store. 
There is enough for all of us. 
Lord, tables are empty, but there is enough; 
cupboards are bare, but there is enough; 
tongues are parched, but there is enough. 
Lord, make room for the hungry and the thirsty at some table. 
Come Lord Jesus, be our Guest. Amen.

-by The Rev. Joseph T. Webb, III

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Loaves For The Whole World

A sermon based on 2 Kings 4:42-44Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-21.
A sermon on the topic of immigration. 

In our Old Testament lesson from 2 Kings, one man has “twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack” and Elisha wants to use it to feed a hundred people. Elisha’s servant has strong doubts about Elisha’s mathematical skills - "How can I set this before a hundred people?" he said. Elisha replied, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" And it was so.

Our gospel lesson from John tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand. A huge crowd had followed Jesus and now Jesus wanted to feed them. The disciples questioned this plan. Philip said, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." Andrew said, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" The details of this story are a little different from the one in 2 Kings, but the overall story is very much the same. People were hungry, there didn’t seem to be enough for everyone, but in the end all had more than enough.

Both of these stories speak about the ability of God to provide. These readings also touch on people’s fear of not having enough. Elisha’s servant and Jesus’ disciples saw the limited amount of food that they had and could not imagine any possible way of it feeding so many people. They must have been hungry themselves, I can picture them worried about giving away all their food. It’s not that they didn’t care about the other people, but that they couldn’t see how they could help themselves while being generous to the crowd.

This is a common human failing, and it does great damage to other people. Throughout history, people have placed many barriers up, intending to protect themselves and what they have by keeping other people down or far away.

In July 1938, the Évian Conference was held in order to discuss the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Representatives from 32 countries and 24 voluntary organizations met for 8 days in Évian-les-Bains, France.  Jews in Germany and Austria were hopeful that countries would agree to accept more immigrants. Hitler even said that he would help the Jews leave if there were countries that would accept them.

The United States, despite having called for the conference, refused to increase its immigration quotas to admit more refugees.  Other nations at the conference followed suit.  State department correspondence reveals the US government’s cynical motive in calling the conference was specifically to forestall political pressure to liberalize immigration law.

In 1979, Walter Mondale described the hope represented by the Evian conference:
"At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, 'It is heartbreaking to think of the ...desperate human beings ... waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian ... it is a test of civilization.'" (New York Times: Evian and Geneva by Walter F. Mondale)

Civilization failed the Jews. The Nazis viewed the outcome of the conference as justifying their own treatment of Jews, and it may even have contributed to shifting Nazi policy away from deportation and towards their horrific “Final Solution."  With no place to go European Jews were trapped in their native countries, forced into concentration camps, and then slaughtered. 

Why wouldn’t other countries accept more Jewish refugees? Undoubtedly, many people were bigoted against Jews. Many people disliked people of a different race and religion than their own. Many people were fearful of competition for jobs and resources, or assumed that the refugees, destitute after being robbed by the Nazis, would somehow drag them down. Today things aren’t very different. People are still fearful of letting in all the refugees who want to come. Millions of desperate people are trapped in their countries, not allowed to leave for a safer and better life.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


A Sermon based on Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41.

This is a short question that we all have asked countless times. 
It is a question that is very easy to ask, but not always easy to answer. We begin asking this question as a small child. Why shouldn’t I touch fire? Why do I have to go to bed now? Why are things the way they are?

We might grow older and ask this question a bit less often, but we still wonder – why? There is a why question that is perhaps the most powerful and hardest to answer and it is “why do bad things happen to good people?” In philosophy and theology we call this “the problem of evil” – how do you reconcile evil in the world with a loving all-powerful God?

In many times and many places – people have answered this question of “why bad things happen” by saying that bad things only happen to those who deserve them. It might seem obviously false to us, but it has been commonly thought to be so, even in Jesus’ time. The disciples once asked Jesus – who had to sin that a man was born blind – was it his parent’s sin or his own sin? (John 9) Jesus said it was neither who sinned. Hindus have a complicated system of reincarnation and karma that insists that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people – that you deserve your fate. Classical Hinduism explains that it is your own fault when you are born into an unfortunate situation – you must have done something wrong in a previous life in order to be born to abject poverty and suffering.

When we try to automatically place the blame for bad things onto the victims we ignore numerous things, but there are three I'd like to mention: 
1. When we blame the victims we ignore when other people or society at large is responsible, and thus things are more difficult to change for better 
2. People really are a mix of good and bad, and 
3. Bad things really do happen to people who do not deserve it

We have a good example of this last point in the book of Job. Job lost everything – his wife and children, his property, his health – and some of his friends tried to offer him advice. They believed that Job did something wrong, and so must admit his guilt. In the story, Job is innocent of any wrongdoing. The book of Job teaches us that there isn’t always a good reason for suffering, and that it is not always our fault.

Towards the end of the book of Job, God responds to the accusations against Job and to Job’s cry to God. God’s response is interesting because God offers no explanation why things have happened to Job. God exclaims: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) This is an echo to the question that people often asked God – “Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when such and such happened?” God doesn't often answer that question in the way we would wish.  God’s echo of our “where were you?” shows the distance between what we experience and know and what God knows and experiences.

In our gospel lesson today, the disciples are frightened by a storm. Jesus is asleep in the boat, and they woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mark 4:38) Jesus wakes and calms the storm. The disciples thought that just because they didn’t see an immediate reaction from Jesus meant that he didn’t care. But Jesus was in the boat with them and in control.

Along with “Where were you”, “Do you care” is another way of asking God why something happened. When things go wrong in our lives and in the  lives of those whom we hold dear – we wonder, where is God in all this? Does God even care? We wish that Jesus would wake up from his nap and do something.

I have no clear, easy answer to why bad things happen. If I did, I wouldn’t put it in this sermon anyways. I’d write a book and then become the richest person on earth.  There is not one answer or one statement that will satisfy every situation that we find ourselves in. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I have the answer for why things happen.

There are certain things that we can know, for we all observe them. We know that there is suffering, there is pain, sorrow, loss, destruction, and death in this world. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes it is the fault of another person or group of persons, sometimes it seems to be no one’s fault.

Sometimes we can see the likely reasons why things happened – people do make bad decisions, people do make legitimate mistakes, and the physical world has chaotic phenomenon that can be studied by scientists – like hurricanes and earthquakes. But oftentimes, we don’t see a reason or are not satisfied with the reasons that we obverse. Yes, we know what causes hurricanes but why didn't God stop it? Yes, that person’s decision to drive drunk caused a person’s death but why didn’t God intervene? I wish I had an answer as to why God sometimes intervenes and sometimes does not – I’d write another book about that one.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's Bamboo Kingdom

Sermon based on Mark 4:26-34

Jesus taught with parables all the time, they were especially helpful in illuminating what the Kingdom of God is like. There are several reasons why parables are such an effective teaching technique, I just want to mention two today:

1. Stories are easy to connect with, remember, and share. A parable is often a short story that connects with the audience - it contains familiar scenarios so that the listeners can picture what is happening in their minds. A short story also has the benefit of being easier to remember and to share with others, thus the teaching gets shared with more than the original audience. 

2. Parables are different from regular stories in that parables often contain surprising or shocking imagery or outcomes. Parables were not only to teach and instruct, but also to frustrate, to challenge, to transform.

Both of the two short parables today are about seeds and growing. Those are things that Jesus’ audience would have easily related with. These days, the only plants I have regular interaction with are orchids - and they are air plants and very different from anything you would plant to eat. They are surprisingly hard to kill, even when I forget to water them.

As a kid, my parents had a very large vegetable garden and my family regularly ate from that we grew. I have memories of Dad plowing the field, and then he would instruct my brother and me what seeds to plant and where. Some seeds were large, others were tiny. Some you had to be careful about putting enough space in between seeds, others were not so particular. I remember after all the work that went with planting, there was the excitement and then boredom of waiting for them to grow. Some plants grew more quickly than others, some took so long that I had forgotten what we planted by the time they did sprout. Still others never grew at all. It was a big mystery to me. Why did some grow and others did not? Did we do something wrong? Or was there something wrong with the seed itself? I had no idea.

In Jesus’ first parable today, he said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of God in this parable? He is relating it to a common experience of farmers - where there is much uncertainty about the growth of crops. As a farmer, there is much you can plan and prepare for, but there are always some unknowns and some things outside of your control. Likewise, the kingdom of God is something that we can make some preparations for but it is largely out of our control and there are many unknowns. In the parable, it is the earth that does much of the mysterious work of growing the seeds. In the kingdom of God, it is God who does much of the mysterious work. In the end, when the grain is ripe, the farmer better be ready to harvest - or else all that work goes to waste. We do not know when the kingdom of God will be ripe, or will be totally here transforming a new heaven and a new earth - but when that day arrives people will be ready for whatever comes next.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Blame Game

Sermon based on Genesis 3:8-15 

There are so many questions to ask about our world and how things came to be. Why do people wear clothes and animals do not? Why don’t snakes have legs? How did we learn the difference between right and wrong? What was the first thing a person did that caused division or harm in a relationship? Why do people always blame others for their own mistakes? Why are things the way they are?

An etiology is a kind of story that explains the beginnings of something. It answers the questions of why and how things came to be. Much of Genesis is made up of etiological stories. The writers of Genesis were not witnesses to these things, but were writing down stories from a very old oral tradition. The Israelites, like people everywhere, told stories to explain why things were the way they were. Many etiological stories were not necessarily meant to be historical stories, but were rather ways of expressing fundamental truths in ways that people could understand and easily remember for the next generation.

People wanted to understand why humans live in an imperfect world. Did God create it that way? Or did we somehow mess it up? Where does evil or sin or imperfection come from? Our Old Testament lesson today, Genesis 3:8-15, is an attempt to explain these things. The things I want to focus on today are: evil, wisdom and blame.

Philosophers and theologians have explored the concept of evil and tried to figure out how much it is an external or an internal force. This story from Genesis is often used to support the idea of a personification of evil or a being of evil. The text itself does not ever say that the serpent is Satan or even evil, which is an interpretation that came much later. Paul identified the snake as Satan in 2 Corinthians and John did so in the book of Revelation. Part of the reason why they identified the snake as Satan is their connecting the sin and evil beginning with Adam and Eve and then Jesus Christ being necessary to take away our sins and defeat evil.

I think it must be noted that whoever or whatever this serpent is, all it did was ask a question and state the truth – it didn't force anyone to do anything or directly cause something to happen. The human beings in the story, Adam and Eve, were the ones to take action.

The verses before our reading today fill in more of the story, but seeing as how it is such a familiar story I will not reread it but rather highlight the main points.

Depending upon translation, the serpent is described as crafty or cunning – which are words about intelligence that often have negative connotations. However, the Hebrew word used here is used elsewhere in scripture in more positive lights, such as crafty and prudent (Proverbs 12:16) or clever (Proverbs 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; and 22:3).

The serpent and Eve were having the conversation, but the text tells us that Adam was there.  The snake asks a question: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ (Gen 3: 1) Eve answered that there was one tree that if you ate from it or even touched it you would die. The snake told her the truth: “‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4) This was technically true – Adam and Eve did not die from touching or eating from this tree. And they did know the difference between good and evil. Do you realize what knowing the difference between good and evil is? It is called wisdom.

Now you might be wondering – if the snake caused wisdom instead of sin then how come it was cursed by God?

Eating from the tree can be described as the first sin in that it was the first act of disobedience, but it can also be described as the birth of wisdom – of knowing right from wrong. And while disobeying God is a bad thing, wisdom is a mixed blessing. Ask any nerd in school – wisdom is both a blessing and a curse. Wisdom can lead you to many possibilities – some beneficial, some harmful, some neutral. Wisdom is a deep understanding of our world and what is possible; this has led to the creation of tools that can be used for good and can also be used for great evil. It’s up to the people what they do.

This brings me to the concept of blame. When confronted by God about what happened, Adam and Eve’s response was classic. Neither claimed responsibility but passed the blame along. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent. If the serpent had been asked, it probably would have passed the blame back to Adam and Eve. I think the fault rests with Adam and Eve equally. No one forced them to disobey God. They saw something that they wanted and they took it. Taking what we want without considering the cost and passing the blame to others is human nature, and definitely not a good thing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

God, Both Near and Far

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, based on Isaiah 6:1-8
June 3, 2012

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a preacher of limited understanding, and I live among a people of limited understanding; yet today is Trinity Sunday and I must preach!

Most Sundays in the church year commemorate something in Jesus’ life (like his birth or resurrection), or something in the life of the church (like Pentecost or Saint’s Days). Trinity Sunday is very different, for it is based on a doctrine. And this doctrine, while central to our faith, is more complicated than our limited understanding can fully grasp. 

When we think of God - many people focus in on the transcendent qualities of God. Transcendent is a fancy way of saying that God is independent and removed from the universe, that God is outside of the world. God is described as being all-knowing, and all-powerful.

Our Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah really brings to mind the transcendence of God. Isaiah is completely overwhelmed by his experience of God. God is so vast and enormous that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. There are mysterious beings called seraphs that are speaking about God’s holiness. And smoke fills the room, adding a further element of mystery and distance. Isaiah exclaims: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah is very aware of the fact that God is holy and he is not, that God is mighty and he is small. Isaiah is afraid.

We don’t like to be afraid, but in this circumstance fear is a very reasonable reaction. One of the definitions of fear is a "profound reverence and awe especially toward God" (Merriam Webster). This is what Isaiah is experiencing when he exclaims “Woe is me!” Isaiah sees the vastness and power of God and realizes how simple and small and unclean he is in comparison.

It is very hard to understand how small we are in the vastness of time and space, let alone compared to the vastness of the power of God.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Douglas Adam’s multivolume Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this series there is a form of punishment called the Total Perspective Vortex, which is thought to be the cruelest form of punishment possible. Intelligent, sentient beings are placed into the Total Perspective Vortex and are shown the vastness of time and space in its entirety, with a tiny arrow that indicates “you are here.” (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ballantine, 1981, p.70). That is definitely one way of putting things into perspective!

Fortunately for Isaiah and for us, God does not leave us in a place of isolation and impurity. The seraph with the live coal symbolizes God’s power to purify and make whole. God could have left Isaiah in a state of despair, but God chose to transform Isaiah into a person who is capable of volunteering himself to be sent and used by God. 

God is distant and present, impersonal and personal, outside of the world and in the world.

Although we cannot fully comprehend the nature of God, there are some things that we can say about God. Today I would like to focus on how God is both transcendent and imminent.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Where Would We Be...

Sermon for Pentecost, based on Acts 2:1-21Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Where would we be without words? Language is such an innate part of human culture. All over the world, all throughout time, people have used language to communicate with one another. Many societies have had a written language, but all have a spoken language. There are even sign languages for the deaf and Braille for the blind. Without language we would be lost.

Have you ever traveled to a foreign country where the predominate language is not your own? It can be very disorienting and confusing when you cannot read all the signs, the menus, or even ask simple questions. Thankfully we have translation dictionaries, (such as English to Spanish), and also translation software to help us bridge the gap between two languages.

There is something else that enables communication by bridging gaps, and that is the Holy Spirit. Think of the Holy Spirit as a kind of God to Human translation being. The Holy Spirit enables communication with other people and with God by means of bridging gaps and also by illuminating the truth.

I’ll start with how the  Holy Spirit helps to bridge gaps in communication. One example of this is in our lesson today from Acts, where the  Holy Spirit enables communication with other people that would normally be difficult. The disciples were Galileans, yet people from other parts of the world could understand what the disciples were saying. The disciples were not having a casual conversation; the text tells us that they were “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” The disciples were sharing their testimony about Jesus Christ and the  Holy Spirit  made it easier to do so.

The  Holy Spirit  isn't just about translation, but the  Holy Spirit  also suggests the right words to say. In Luke 12:11-12 Jesus told his disciples: “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say;for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.’” The  Holy Spirit  will teach you what to say. Jesus knew that his disciples would face criticism and persecution when he sent them out into the world to share the good news. Jesus also knew that with the  Holy Spirit ’s power, the disciples would find the right words to say at the right time.

The  Holy Spirit  also enables communication with God. We see this power evident when we pray. The  Holy Spirit  prods us in the right direction about what to pray for and how to feel. The  Holy Spirit  comforts and consoles in times of trouble, encourages us when we need support, admonishes and corrects us when we have erred, humbles us when we are self-absorbed, and all in all puts us in the right frame of mind.

Sometimes we are at a lost for words. Things are so overwhelming, either in a negative or positive way, and we cannot find the right words for prayer. Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) The  Holy Spirit  “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” For all the good that words and language do in communication, there are times when words fail. There are times when we cannot even begin to say all that we need to say to God. There are times when we are even unaware of all that we need to say.  And in those times, we have the  Holy Spirit . A sigh can express what cannot be put into words.

The  Holy Spirit  can reach those truths that are too complicated or too painful to put into words, because the  Holy Spirit  is the Spirit of truth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jesus' Prayer

Sermon based on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19
May 20, 2012

Our gospel lesson today is a bit different from usual. It  is neither a story from Jesus’ life nor is it one of his teachings. There is no miracle,  no parable or sermon, no explanation of a previous teaching or prophesy about the future. Today's reading is simply a prayer. Jesus is praying to God on behalf of his disciples. This takes place right before Jesus goes to the garden and is betrayed by Judas.

In his prayer, Jesus asks God to protect his disciples. Jesus knows that he will be leaving soon and he wants to make sure that his disciples will be protected. Jesus also prays that God would make his disciples one just as he and the Father are one. 

Jesus did not pray that things would be easy for the disciples, he did not pray that the disciples would all live to an old age, and he did not pray to God to take the disciples out of the world. Instead, Jesus wanted the disciples to stay in the world so that they might go out into the world and spread the good news. Jesus prays for protection for his disciples,that they might be able to live into their mission and teach and baptize others.

Jesus knew that he was about to leave his earthly ministry and return back to God. Very soon, Jesus would be crucified and then  resurrected. Although Jesus would be resurrected, Jesus would ascend to heaven and would no longer be present in the same way that he had been before. Jesus returned to the Father.

After the Ascension, the disciples now have to make decisions that they didn't have to before. Jesus used to call all the shots. Jesus decided who was a part of the 12 inner circle of disciples. Our Acts lesson today tells the quandary that the disciples find themselves in after the ascension. They are now only a group of 11. Judas betrayed Jesus and then killed himself. Jesus did not replace Judas with someone else, and the disciples wanted to complete the symbolic 12. There were many disciples or followers of Christ, Acts tells us that there were about 120 believers present on this one occasion. But the 11 wanted the inner circle to be 12 again. 

The requirement for a new apostle was that they had been a follower of Jesus and  also present from the day of his baptism by John until the ascension.  Two men were nominated that fulfilled that requirement, and then they cast lots and Matthias was chosen to be the 12th apostle.

Matthias was never mentioned again in the book of Acts. He might have had a powerful ministry and spread the gospel far and wide, but we do not know. The person that we know of who really lived into being an apostle was not the one that the 11 chose but one that the Holy Spirit chose: Paul. God chose Paul to be an apostle

This choice of Paul teaches us several things. First of all, it shows that God was still at work in the world. Even though the apostles were making important decisions about the direction the early church would go in, God was making some decisions and choices apart from what the apostles were doing. Jesus may have ascended to be with the Father, but Jesus was still issuing invitations to follow him.

Secondly, this choice of Paul shows that God works with different standards than our own. Paul did not fit the disciples' requirements for a new apostle. First of all, he wasn't even a believer at the time that they were choosing a 12th.  He was not present for any of Jesus' earthly ministry. Paul became a believer only after having a post-resurrection experience of the risen Christ. Yet, Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle.

Thirdly, God's choice of Paul shows us that God works to include and bring together. The disciples wanted to unify and strengthen the core group of the 12, and that was fine. However, the 12 were not the most diverse group. They did come from different backgrounds, such as fishermen and tax-collector, but they were still all Jewish men. Paul was also a Jewish man, but he also had a foot in the Hellenistic world. Paul was a Roman citizen, and focused much of his ministry on  converting Gentiles. The direction towards including non-Jews as followers of Christ started during Jesus’ own ministry, but it really took off during Paul’s ministry.

Jesus prayed that his disciples might be one. What does Jesus mean by this oneness? The disciples went to different places and founded various churches. And today, with all of our denominations and divisions it seems fairly obvious that we are not one.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Picture taken by me at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

A couple months ago, I was touring St. Louis Cathedral (Roman Catholic) in New Orleans and I came across a huge crucifix. This crucifix was quite striking in its details. The sculpture of Jesus on the cross was well detailed and he was also painted very life-like. Or death-like I should say. You could see the wounds and blood very vividly. It was a very moving piece of sacred art.

I've been a Protestant my whole life, though I did spend my first two years of high school at a Roman Catholic school. So the vast majority of the cross images that I have seen during my life have been empty crosses. There are several reasons why Protestants elected to go with a cross rather than a crucifix - to differentiate themselves from Roman Catholics, to remove anything that they considered to resemble idolatry  (some Protestants even rejected the plain cross and other religious images altogether), to focus on the resurrection (a more modern argument). I generally prefer crosses to crucifixes because I was raised with them and I see the empty cross as a double reminder - a reminder of both the crucifixion and the resurrection (both of which are necessary and dependent upon each other).

However, seeing that crucifix reminded me of how powerful an image the crucifix is and that we are missing something in churches when we only use empty crosses. It is especially appropriate during Lent and Holy Week to use a crucifix because it keeps us centered upon Jesus' death. A detailed crucifixion image demands our attention and reminds us of just how horrible Jesus' torture and death was. A crucifix does not let us skip from Palm Sunday directly to Easter without Good Friday in-between. A crucifix does not allow us to celebrate the resurrection without considering the enormous sacrifice that Jesus made for us and the whole world.

I recommend spending some time before Easter looking at a crucifix and not just looking but actually seeing and feeling it in an attempt to bring oneself closer to the crucified Christ.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Prayer of St. Ephrem The Syrian

Icon of Saint Ephrem the Syrian(Meryem Ana KilesesiDiyarbakır,Turkey)
File from Wikimedia Commons (public domain, copyright expired)

There is much that different Christian denominations can learn from one another. Prayers and practices vary from denomination to denomination, and it can be helpful to take notice of these differences from time to time in order to deepen our own understanding and practice of Christianity. Even if a prayer or practice is very similar to our own, the small differences can sometimes breathe new life and understanding into a familiar prayer or practice.

The Prayer of St. Ephrem The Syrian is a prayer attributed to St. Ephrem, a Syriac language hymn writer and theologian from the 4th century. This prayer is particularly used during the Great Lent by Orthodox Christians. There are two different versions of this prayer historically - both a Greek and a Slavonic version. Various English translations are based on either version (or a combination of both).This prayer is prayed during all Lenten weekday services, as well as by individuals  in the home. I've included two different English versions of this prayer and encourage you to consider adding this prayer to your Lenten prayers this season.

Version 1 (originally found here)

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and acquisitiveness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking. 

Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, the spirit of patience and neighborly love. 

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my own sins and of not thinking evil of those of my brothers and sisters. For You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Version 2 (originally found here)

O Lord and Master of my life: take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk.

But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Saints & Lent Madness

St. Mary Magdeline, by Titian [1565] (Public Domain Image)

Have you ever wondered who the Saints of the Church are? I'm sure you know the names of at least a few Saints; James, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Valentine, Patrick. If you are curious about the Saints, there are several ways to learn more about them. There are books that list and describe some of them. One such book lists the Saints that are remembered in the Episcopal Church calendar. This book used to be titled Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but has been revised and expanded into Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. This book contains a brief biography of the Saint, a collect or prayer, and suggested scripture readings. Another resource about the Saints is the classic Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler (this is the 1894 Benziger Brothers edition).

An unusual but fun way to learn about the Saints is to visit the site Lent Madness. Lent Madness is inspired by the March Madness basketball brackets, and is pairing off 32 Saints in head-to-head competitions. People vote for the Saint that they wish to proceed to the next round. The next round is the Round of Saintly Sixteen, then the Elate Eight, then the Final Four, and then the final two compete for the Golden Halo.

I've printed out the 2012 Brackets and am looking forward to learning more about these 32 Saints during this Lenten season.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Openness to God's Call

A sermon based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2012

What would you find compelling enough to leave everything and everyone you know behind and go for something new? It would take a whole lot, wouldn't it? Some folks will leave roots that they have built in one place in order to find a job or to take advantage of a career opportunity. Some will move for a relationship - move across the country to be with either a significant other or to be near children or grand-children. It would have to be something worthwhile to take such a risk.

It might be hard to find something worthwhile for an individual to take such a risk, but it would be even harder to find something worthwhile for a group of people. Sometimes family members will move together, such as in immigrating to a new country. Sometimes members of a religious group will move to a place where they are free to practice their faith. In order to motivate a group of people, either the current situation has to be really bad or the possibility has to be really good.

Simon and Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. That is what they knew, how they supported themselves and their families. And yet, they left it all behind to follow Jesus - their family, friends, homes, livelihoods.

We do not know what these disciples were thinking, or what other information they might have had. Were they happy or satisfied being fishermen or did they already have a sense that there was something else that they should be doing? Was this the first time that they had ever seen Jesus? Or had they heard Jesus teaching earlier? Or had they heard from others about Jesus? Did James and John know Simon and Andrew and were encouraged to follow Jesus by their example? We don't know.

All we know is that Jesus called and they followed. There must have been something powerfully compelling about Jesus.
-so compelling that these and other disciples left all they knew to follow
-so compelling that people followed Jesus wherever Jesus went, seeking wisdom and healing
-so compelling that Paul stopped persecuting Christians and became one himself
-so compelling that Christians throughout the ages have been martyred as witnesses to the power and love of Christ.

It can be discouraging if we don't always feel that compelled. We should remember a few things. Not everyone Jesus  called followed him. There was the rich young man who went away disappointed, and there was the person who wanted to bury their father. Not everyone Jesus taught understood or believed him. And not everyone responds at first, but might later.
We need to be open to hearing God's message, to hearing Jesus' call to follow him. Openness is important, because it makes us easier to reach. I have some noise-cancelling headphones that are really great, they make it easy to tune out the world around me. If I have them on, then to get my attention you have to wave in front of my face, tap my shoulder, or yell loudly. You can still get my attention, but it is much harder. Openness helps.

How can we be open to hearing God's call to us? There are numerous strategies to open ourselves up to God’s call, but I have four to talk about today.