Friday, November 09, 2012

Sermon: God will swallow up death forever

Date: 4 November 2012
At: All Saint's Church, Rampton
Texts: Is 65.6-9, John 11.32-44


In the ancient world, death hung like a malevolent spectre over everything.

In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet mentions death as “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” At this time, life after death was considered to be something ethereal, ephemeral. Sheol was the name given to the place where the dead were, and it was a place of almost nothingness. You were conscious, but then again, you weren’t. Death was the place from which you could do nothing more. So, we hear the Psalmist say in different places in different ways, “Lord, save me. I cannot praise you from the grave!” Death was the silent shroud that blocked out the sun of life. All nations held its fear in common. Death was the common denominator.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, it is not much different. By this time, a hope of resurrection had developed, and Mary avows her belief that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. But, still, we see the depth of the malady. Mary weeps. Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” When Jesus comes to the tomb, he weeps, and John records again that he is “greatly disturbed.” And the dead man is quite literally covered in a shroud, wrapped in cloth, bound, held tight. The shroud covers all people.

And the shroud motivated and terrified people. For some, it motivated them to live their lives to the utmost, because they knew they would have nothing after death. For others, it simply terrified them, and they sought ways to dull the pain of the knowledge of death. “The shroud is cast over all peoples. The sheet is spread over all nations.”


We live in a world where the shroud seems to be being pulled back. Advances in medical technology mean that the average lifespan has increased significantly. HIV/AIDS is on its way to being solved, and we are all pretty sure that the cure for cancer is just around the corner. Many of us can expect to live into our eighties or beyond. When Social Security was enacted in the United States, the minimum age for receiving benefits was after the average age of death. Now, we have so many people reaching retirement that the system is overwhelmed, almost sunk.

But the idea that the shroud is being pulled back is an illusion. The mortality rate is still 100%, even if we do squeeze a few more years out of life. Everyone is going to die. The shroud of death may seem to be being pulled back, but really, it is just being ignored. We have hidden it. We have become a culture where “life” is the goal and the idea of “dying a good death” is either poo-pooed or lost entirely.

But, what does that mean? It means that we live in a world where we care more about the present moment than we care about future generations. We do things that feel good now, not things that will leave a legacy or change the world. We start treating our body with contempt, subjecting it to the abuse of alcohol or drugs or anything else that helps us forget that even as much as we are told to live in the present that the present can sometimes be a really horrible place to live.

And so we go on, content with the degradation of our bodies, content with death creeping up on us unawares. We go into that abyss without consideration, unprepared. The shroud of death still covers all nations, but we have learned to ignore it almost entirely.


Returning to Isaiah, we see that the shroud of death is not meant to be ignored. It is meant to be destroyed. Isaiah writes, “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (25:7-8). God will swallow up death forever.

When God has done so, the life of the world to come will not be like Sheol, a place of darkness. It will be like a great banquet. Isaiah says there will be rich food and well-matured wines. The guest list includes people from every nation on earth. At the party, God will personally wipe the tears from all faces, especially the faces of his chosen people Israel, who have waited for him so long so that he might save them. Then the whole gathered throng will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation. God will swallow up death forever.

And it is in Jesus that God has swallowed up death. We see the beginning of it in his ministry when he brings the dead back to life. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says to Lazarus’ sister Martha. Even when the smell of decay reaches his nostrils, he does not relent. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And the crowd does see, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

But it is not until Jesus himself is taken down from the Cross and buried, laying under the shroud that is cast over all peoples, that God’s victory over death is finally seen in its fullness. For, on the third day, the lifeless form receives life again. A sharp intake of breath, the removal, folding, and putting aside of the shroud, all these are the signs that in Jesus Christ, God has swallowed up death forever and that God is, through Jesus’ ministry, preparing the table on the mountain, where the rich food will be together with the well-matured wines, to which we will all be called to sup.


Today is the first Sunday after the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls. On All Saints, we remember those heroes of faith who have come before us. On All Souls, we remember all the faithful departed. It is a time the Church sets aside to remember those whose example we can follow and to remember those who are near to us who have passed beyond this life into the next. It gives us opportunity to think and pray and hope. And given that God will swallow up death forever on that mountain, it is a hope of resurrection, a hope of being raised on the last day to share the humanity with which Jesus ascended to his Father’s right hand. This is a day of hope, a hope that brings joy.

For, although we live in a society that tries to hide the shroud of death, we can embrace it. We know that in Jesus Christ, God has swallowed up death. The shroud will be destroyed. We don’t have to fear our deaths because we know that just as Jesus was raised on the third day, we will be raised on the last.

And since we have that hope, we don’t have to avoid talking or thinking about death. We can think about what it means to die well. We can meet death when it comes not as people without hope, not with fear and trembling, but in the sure and certain hope that Jesus Christ is the one in whom we have our life and being.

And that means that now, in the present, we can live with joy. We can embrace the life of discipleship as the saints did. We can heed God’s call to holiness. We can reach out our hands to our neighbours. We can put the work into this parish of All Saints, this place named for all those who have come before. In the great cloud of witnesses, they have not stopped cheering for you here in Rampton. They have not stopped applauding your faithfulness and encouraging you to keep running and to finish the race well. And it all comes back to God. Since God has swallowed up death forever, we can live our lives in the present, plan for the future, and trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us with him in glory.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

**Photo by Belén Galán.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Jesus Multiplies the Offering

Date: 29 July, 2012


On top of the mountain, the Twelve focus on Jesus as he sits and teaches, but the growing babble of the nearing multitude slowly crowds in. At first, the disciples put the sound out of their ears, not really realizing what they're hearing. Then, slowly, it creeps in, causing annoyance first, then frustration. They are trying to listen to Jesus teach, after all. So they double-down and focus all the harder.

Until, that is, Jesus just stops talking. He looks over the heads of his disciples at the rabble. Some are bearing stretchers. Some are crying. They have been following Jesus because, as John would later write, "they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick." The crowd wanted a piece of what Jesus was offering.

But instead of performing the sign that the crowd expects, Jesus puts a question to his disciples, specifically to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" As Philip turns to see the gathering throng, counting, (what is that 5,000 people?) he misses the twinkle in Jesus' eye, the twinkle that says that Jesus already knows what he is going to do. Turning back, Philip plows ahead, a bit defensively perhaps, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." The disciples pat their purses, remembering what it was like to have wages in them. Even if they had money, there would be no place to go to buy that amount of food. Did they have anything that they could set before Jesus?

Andrew pipes up, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish." Seven little bits of food for 5,000? Andrew looks down at the boy’s offering and finishes everyone’s thought, "But what are they among so many people?"


"Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" Jesus asks us. We have gathered here to sit at Jesus' feet. St. Bene’t’s is down in the ground, not on top of a mountain, but the effect is the same. We have gathered, and for nearly 1,000 years, the crowds have come. And the crowds that darken our door, and the crowds we can now see throughout our world, are afflicted by so much: civil war in Syria, sickness in Africa, massacre in America, poverty and isolation here in Cambridge. "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"

It’s here that many of our best instincts kick in. We reach for our purses but cannot find the six months wages it would take to help. We look at the scraps of gifting and talent we do have, and the networks we could ask for more help, but against the tide of evil that threatens to overtake our world, what are they among so many people?

We don't have Jesus sitting beside us in person. We haven’t been there as he has healed the sick and made the lame to dance for joy. No, all it seems we have is ourselves. And, we can very readily begin to despair. We come to believe that this feeling of despair, this deep darkness within us, is itself the problem, so we seek to medicate it. And the world around us is happy to help us self-medicate just enough to forget the injustices and cruelties that thrive around us.

G. K. Chesteron wrote of someone representing this eager world: "'Drink,' he says, 'for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace'." What are our meagre offerings among so many people?


To the look of despair in his disciples' faces, Jesus says, "Make the people sit down." Taking the boy's meagre offering, Jesus holds it and gives his Father thanks and then breaks it, distributing it to the people who were seated on the great expanse of grass at the base of the hill. He then takes the fish and does the same thing, and the crowd eats until they are satisfied. "Gather up the fragments left over," Jesus says to his disciples, "so that nothing may be lost." So the disciples go to work in silence. When they are done, they have twelve baskets full of bread, one basket for every tribe of Israel, one basket for each of them. It is a Sign, as John calls them, not an ordinary miracle. This Sign says something about Jesus himself.

And the crowd understands this. Once everyone has eaten their fill, the whispers begin. Didn't Moses feed the people bread from heaven? Didn't Moses promise that one day a prophet like him would arise? John writes, "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world'." A hopeful, an almost ecstatic tension begins rippling through the seated multitude. The word "King" becomes audible, and Jesus realizes that they are about to force him into something for which he is not yet prepared. So, he withdraws from the crowd and from the disciples before they can put him on their shoulders and carry him to Jerusalem.

A little while later, the disciples start their return trip to Capernaum across the Sea of Galilee. The wind picks up about halfway through the journey, but then suddenly Jesus is there, walking across the water like no prophets had ever done before. "It is I; do not be afraid," he says, and the disciples find themselves immediately at safety on the other side. This Jesus who multiplies meagre offerings is something more than a prophet like Moses, something more than a political king. This Jesus who is in charge of loaves and fishes is also in charge of the wind and the waves. This Jesus is the Son of God.


And it is this Jesus at whose feet we gather today. He is the one we sing songs to. He is the one honoured in our liturgy and the one extolled in our preaching. And it is this Jesus who still has the twinkle in his eye when he asks us where we will find bread for so many people. He already knows what he is going to do when he puts the question to us, and he expects us to act as Andrew did: to offer him what we have. It might only be seven loaves worth of talent, but Jesus is in charge of loaves and fishes. It might only be two fish worth of time and money, but Jesus is in charge of the wind and the waves. To show the crowd who he was, he multiplied a meagre offering on the hillside all those years ago. He continues to do so today.

So, when the despair comes that threatens to overtake us with visions of that base equality and that evil peace, let us set before Christ our meagre offerings of bread and fish and say what our father and mothers in faith have said throughout time: "Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come." By ourselves, we cannot hope to overcome, but Jesus is the one who multiplies our meagre offerings. Jesus is the one who will show himself faithful even here, even now.

Every week, we re-enact this faithfulness when our meagre offering is brought down the aisle to the altar. We set it before Christ and say “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” And he does. And he bids us drink, not like the world bids us drink. As Chesterton writes, "'Drink" he says 'for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this is my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where'."

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Photo by Igor Dugonjic

Monday, July 30, 2012


I recently reread Archbishop Michael Ramsey's, The Anglican Spirit (Cowley, 1991). In one chapter, Ramsey gives a quote about John Keble, and then adds his own gloss:

"I sent the same to John Keble, a friend who is in great distress about faith and many controversies. He lived with John Keble for a month or two. John Keble said no word of controversy, but lived. And my friend's faith was restored and his place in the Anglican Church was restored."  
And it was in those words, "but live," that the crisis was overcome and we are now, you and I, where we are (64).
The present controversy, whatever it is, will not be overcome by political wrangling. It will be won by the life of holiness, well lived.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Long Way to Church

I recently finished a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. Friends of the blog will know that I care a lot about time-management (my first post on the topic was way back in 2006) so expect a more thorough treatment of Vanderkam's book in the coming weeks.

But one result of interacting with the material (plus the fact that I'm home alone) is that I've started taking the long way to church. There are a couple of different routes I've tried. One walks along the backs, with exquisite views of King's College Chapel and a winding approach to the city centre through some amazing brick structures. The other cuts across the cow fields via a beautiful path lined with ducks and swans. Either path gives me a few extra minutes to reconnect with the creation a bit before walking down into St. Bene't's to worship the Creator. They are beautiful, spiritual walks. They feed my soul.

The path leading away from Ridley Hall

The narrow sidewalk threatens to spill you into the street

Punts outside the Granta

The green is always only a few yards away

My path through the cow fields

The Cam, angry

Silver Street Bridge

Swans and signets. Life goes on.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Life of the Spirit (Baptismal Covenant, part 5)

Q.3 Celebrant  Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People   I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.

Q.4 Celebrant  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
  fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
People   I will, with God’s help.

(The fifth installment in the Baptismal Covenant series)

The first two questions of the Baptismal Covenant frame the portable narrative in which everything that follows makes sense. It is true that Q.3 is the third article of the Apostles' Creed, but it breaks the narrative a bit, already making the leap from Christ's Ascension into the present, calling us to believe in the holy catholic Church, the ever-present communion of all those called by Christ living and dead, the Church's ongoing ministry of the forgiveness of sin, the future resurrection of all people, and the hope of everlasting life.

This is where the rubber hits the road, and we begin to see that the Baptized Life isn't only shaped by a narrative of what God has done in the past. We begin to see that the Baptized Life is the Life of the Spirit.

The Catechism asks how we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit. Its answer is succinct and helpful: "We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation" (BCP 852-53). In other words, we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in confession and reconciliation.

And what else but confession and reconciliation does Q. 4 of the Baptismal Covenant talk about? We are asked if we will continue in the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. The Apostles' teaching, so ably summarized in the Apostles' Creed, revolves around the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Every week in the Eucharist, we confess this same faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. The Holy Spirit's work in our lives is more than confessing the faith of the Apostles, but it is not less.

But confessing the faith is not enough - the demons do that and tremble. No, the Catechism rightly points out that the Spirit brings us into love and harmony with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and with all creation. Faith without the work of love is dead. The Covenant asks us not only to continue in the Apostles' teaching but also in their fellowship, a fellowship constituted by the breaking of bread and the prayers. In the fellowship of the Apostles, we come to worship God rightly and practice hospitality with ourselves and others as the reconciled and reconciling priesthood of God.

Some will say that the presence of the Holy Spirit is necessarily either prophetic or ecstatic. There are many in our churches that claim the authority of the Holy Spirit to speak prophetically, that is, to speak about justice issues in the public square. There are also many who tie the presence of the Holy Spirit directly to ecstatic experience of one sort or another. Both speaking prophetically and ecstatic spiritual experience are rightly understood as a sign of the Spirit's presence, but they are not enough in themselves. Either one becomes dangerous when they are disconnected from confession and reconciliation, the very basic evidences of the Spirit's life.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
- 1 Cor 13:1-3
What else is there left to conclude? The Life of the Baptized is the Life of the Spirit of God. When we, with God's help, live into our baptismal promises by confessing Christ as Lord and being reconciled with God, ourselves, neighbor, and the earth, we can be assured that the Spirit of God is dwelling among us.

**Photo by Jeff Miller

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

SERMON: God Grows the Kingdom

Date: The 2nd Sunday after Trinity (June 17, 2012)

Have you noticed? The zombie movie seems to be making a comeback. Last year, Monique and I watched the first few episodes of The Walking Dead, an AMC show that is based on a long-running comic book of the same name. The creators thought that zombies were interesting because, if you think about it, there is no real end to a zombie story. You can’t get rid of them. You fight and you fight and you fight, and then you die. The entire show is an attempt to bring human meaning out of an ultimately hopeless situation. 


Looking at our Gospel passage today, Mark shows Jesus telling an entirely different set of stories, a string of parables about the Kingdom of God. 

Mark writes, "[Jesus] also 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, but he does not know how'." 

Jesus spins a story that his audience can hear. The farmers among them know what it is like to scatter seed on the ground, to sleep and rise and sleep and rise again, and then to see the new growth that would mean food for their families for another year. 

But, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, there is a problem. God has been working with the Israelites for a long time, but it still only feels to them like the seed has been planted. There is no promised restoration. The glory of God has not returned to the Temple. They are sleeping and rising, whole generations have risen and fallen to sleep, but where is the sign of the growth? Have they done something wrong? 

Many would say "yes." The Pharisees say that the people have not kept the Law of God well enough, that they have not loved righteousness and walked with God. For that reason, there is no growth. 

The Essenes, that strange sect out in the dessert, say that it is because the high priesthood was stolen from its rightful heirs for the sake of power and greed. For that reason, there is no growth. 

But in the story, when the seed sprouts and grows, Jesus says that the planter "does not know how" it does so. The planter is shut out of the process of growing. He sows and harvests. In the middle, all he can do is wait.


 In 2010, Chuck Klosterman wrote an article in the New York Times entitled, "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead." Klosterman asks why zombie movies have grown in popularity, and he answers that "modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies." The thing about zombies is that they always keep coming. You might dispatch one, but there will always be another right behind. You fight and fight and fight, and then you die. 

Klosterman continues, "Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It's always a numbers game. And it's more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning, or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is you do." 

Whereas the farmer in Jesus' story does not know how the ground gives growth, we do not know why we continue fighting the day in and day out battles of email, paperwork, and other tedious tasks. When it doesn't stop, and we find ourselves lost in the mire of emails and responsibilities, so mired down that we can't find any space to be alone with our close friends and family, much less with ourselves or with God, we have to start wondering: what does my work mean? Why do I get up in the morning? Why keep fighting?


 The farmer who casts his seed into the ground in hope might ask similar questions. But, simply put, he continues to scatter seed in the fields because the ground continues to do its mysterious work turning those seeds into full heads of grain. He trusts the ground to grow the crop. And since this is a parable of the Kingdom of God, God grows the Kingdom. 

The Kingdom of God is like these seeds the farmer casts onto the ground. It starts out small, and its growth is entirely outside of human control. Citizens of the Kingdom see the Kingdom sprout and grow, but they do not know how it does so. All they know is that there comes a time when their wait is over. As Mark says, “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 

God grows the Kingdom not just for its citizens, but for those who will become its citizens. Jesus continues with another parable. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed. Even though it is a very small seed, when planted it can become a shrub 10-15 feet tall. Jesus says God grows the Kingdom like a mustard seed grows, “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” God grows the Kingdom, and he grows the Kingdom to provide a place for the entire world to come and rest. 

And God the Farmer does all of this in the person and work of Jesus himself. Jesus is the growth from Israel’s soil that the nation had long expected. And Jesus’ ministry will soon flower into a ministry that heals the sick and binds demons all over Israel. Jesus will himself be treated like a seed, crushed, put in the ground, and then three days later, he will sprout again, raised into new life by God the Father. God grows the Kingdom, and people from all the nations of the earth will make nests in its shade.


 If God grows the Kingdom, then what does that say for the modern world of work? Is work for a Christian ultimately like a zombie movie in which you fight, fight, fight, and die? No. As God grows the Kingdom, God gives growth to our work as well. 

In the zombie world of work, the imperative is survival. Killing zombies isn’t hard, but you have to kill them or you die. In the Christian world of work, the imperative is thriving. Tilling the ground is hard work, but once the seeds are sown there is space for rest, for sleeping and rising night and day, because we are off the hook for making the seeds grow. That is the mysterious work of the ground; that is God’s work. We sow, and when the time comes, we harvest. God gives growth to our work. 

In this understanding of our day-to-day, we come to expect an abundance, not necessarily a financial abundance, but an abundance of joy as we see the work of our hands become something we could not have imagined – like a mustard seed turning into the greatest of all shrubs. We sow faithfulness when we show up every day (whether at a job or elsewhere) and fulfil our obligations. We sow kindness when we make ourselves helpful to others. We sow our skills and talents and passions, but then, and this is the good news of work for a Christian, we can let go of the results. The God who is growing the Kingdom all around us is the same God who gives growth to our work in an active partnership. We sow. He grows. We reap. Thanks be to God. 

And what does this mean for us? Sow liberally. In the fields in which you are responsible, sow skill. Sow focused attention. Sow kindness. Scatter these seeds far and wide in your fields, and then say a prayer, go home at the end of the day, and rest in joy and hope. God will give the growth. And when the time comes, you will see the harvest of God’s Kingdom, sprouting up to life for you and your families. Be faithful. Stay true. Whether it is the work we do for employers, the Church, or our friends and families, God gives the growth. Sow liberally. Soon enough the harvest will come. 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Photo by hummel_12

Sunday, June 10, 2012

SERMON: Jesus Starts a New Family

Date: The First Sunday After Trinity (June 10, 2012)

The door to Mary’s house shakes as it is pounded from the outside. Mary opens the door to a familiar face: “Jesus has come home, Mary. Come quickly.” Mary snaps into motion, and calling Jesus’ brothers together, they walk out the door, as the Gospel of Mark says, “to restrain him.”

They pass a crowd of people. She overhears, “Who does he think he is? The scribes from Jerusalem will sort him out.” Mary knows the religious teachers can be dangerous. She quickens her pace.

As Mary and the boys approach, she hears her son’s voice inside the house, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Through the door, she sees the faces of the scribes. One is ashen. The other is angry. The angry one grabs the other and pushes him towards the door. One mumbles to the other, “He has gone out of his mind.”

The house itself is full to over-flowing. Jesus is sitting and teaching in the middle of the room, and everyone is sitting in a circle around him. Mary and Jesus’ brothers are outside, on the periphery. But, Mary has come to get her son to the safety of her home, so she passes word through the crowd. Someone leans over and whispers in Jesus’ ear. His eyes open in surprise. He looks through the doorway at his mother and says so that everyone can hear, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those sitting around him, he says, as Mark testifies, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mary looks at her son, shocked and probably offended. Jesus has refused to come home.


Here in the 21st century, we try to bring Jesus home with us all the time, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. When I was in high school, a friend taught me a song. It starts out, and you’ll have to imagine the country and western style, “I don’t care if it rains for freezes, as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car. Comes in colours pink and pleasant, glows in the dark ‘cause it’s iridescent, take it with you when you travel far.” This is probably one example of the bad way of bringing Jesus home with us.

Another of these were the once-ubiquitous “What would Jesus Do?” bracelets. They were there to remind you to be intentional about the way you lived, a laudable goal! But the problem was, looking around, everyone came up with different answers. For the Baptists, Jesus would never drink, smoke, or dance. For the Catholics, Jesus would do all of those things. For the Christian Right, Jesus wouldn’t vote for a liberal. For the Christian Left, Jesus wouldn’t vote for a conservative. For some, Jesus was a man of tolerance and peace, a hippie before his time. For others, Jesus was a stalwart defender of the Truth with a capital T, a fundamentalist before his time.

But, for every follower of Jesus, there is a moment when we walk up to the house like Mary did, and we try to call Jesus back home, when we try to remove him from the centre and turn him into the plastic Jesus we can put in our car. As we stand on the outside, and our message is passed on to Jesus at the centre of the seated learners, Jesus looks straight at us and says, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus refuses to come home with us, too.


Jesus refuses to go home with his mother, because he was starting a new family. Before Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes, he was on a whirlwind tour, healing illnesses and casting out demons. Just before returning home, he chose twelve disciples who would later, minus one, become the apostles we remember and revere. And then he comes home, but the crowd is not far behind him. There are so many that he can’t even eat. But instead of turning them away, he sits down in the house and begins to teach. But, his fame is spreading too quickly. Scribes come down from Jerusalem and make the accusation that Jesus’ power and influence come from an ominous source. As Mark has them say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.”

The seated crowd at Jesus’ feet goes silent. Seconds tick by. Jesus answers, only indirectly, saying that if a Kingdom or a Household were internally divided then they would not stand. Can Satan be divided against himself? No, he says, I am the one raiding Satan’s house, not vice versa. I am the one breaking through, the one breaking in, and my ministry of healing and exorcism is a sign of a new Kingdom, a new House, a new Family. And when you scribes say that the Kingdom of God comes by the agency of evil spirits, you are blaspheming against God himself.

One of the scribes goes ashen. The other mutters angrily. One grabs the other and starts pushing towards the door, past Mary and the boys. After a moment, someone leans over to Jesus and says, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” Jesus looks up in surprise – all this talk of Kingdoms and Houses wasn’t meant to be about his house, the place where his mother and brothers live. But, then, he realizes, no, it really was. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and the woman who bore him, his natural family, has come to collect him, to tie him up and bring him to her home. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. It is those who choose to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his teaching, those who do the will of God. THOSE are Jesus’ brother and sister and mother. Jesus came to start a new family that could include, but extended far beyond, his earthly mother and brothers.


St. Bene’t’s has a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her son. Throughout the history of the Church, Mary has been represented with the baby Jesus in her arms. If you look at these pictures, even though Our Lady is often the centre-piece, Jesus is obviously the object. If she looks out of the picture, she is pointing to Jesus. If her eyes are focused elsewhere, they are on Jesus. Whatever else happened that day when Jesus started a new family, the Church remembers that Mary learned a lesson – that her family was not the centre of her world, that Jesus was the centre, and that Jesus needed to stay in the centre always.

Jesus calls us to belong with him. When a parent brings a child to be baptized, they are in effect saying that they want their child to be a part of Jesus’ new family, to live a life with Jesus at the centre. Today, when baby Felix comes out from under the water, he will be reborn into this new family. In effect, his godparents will carry him into the room where Jesus sits teaching the crowd. They will sit and listen and learn with Felix in tow. Over the course of years, Felix will grow up and ask questions, and he will come to a moment in his life where he comes to call Jesus back to his house, to his party, to his understanding of the world. And Jesus will ask him, “Who is my family?” And then, as he has done for all of us, Jesus will look around at the simple, the lame, the weak, the rich and poor, the Baptists and Catholics, the conservatives and liberals, the hippies and fundamentalists, all who have put down their placards to sit at his feet, and he will say “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. Sit. Listen. Learn.”

Where are we, then? Are we standing on the outside, calling to Jesus to come home with us? Or, are we here willing to be made a part of Jesus’ family? Every week we have that choice, as we come again to the Table of our Lord. We have here an opportunity to sit down again at Jesus’ feet, to become part of his family, to learn again how to love God, ourselves, and our neighbours. May we be the people who stop trying to co-opt Jesus and his message for our own purposes. May we be the people who sit down at Jesus’ feet as part of his new family.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Virgin Mary photo by Matic Zupancic
**Dashboard Jesus photo by scasha
**Jesus icon photo by Dimitri Castrique
**Mary and Child icon, copyright TatianaVartanova

Monday, May 28, 2012

SERMON: Jesus Sends the Spirit

Date: The Feast of Pentecost (May 27, 2012)
At: St. Andrew's Soham
Text: John15.26-27; 16.4b-15

I am afraid there is something desperately wrong with my washer/dryer. When my wife Monique and I moved to Cambridge about eight months ago, we knew we needed to buy one. We also knew that we couldn’t afford a new one. So, when some friends took us to a second-hand shop, and we saw an older washer/dryer for a reasonable price, we made sure to bring it home with us.

Being Americans, we didn’t have much experience with washer/dryer units. We learned very quickly that using the word “dryer” in relationship to our washer/dryer was ironic at best. It did not dry clothes, even if I set the dryer to run for 60 or 90 minutes. As a result, every surface in our house became a place to dry our laundry.

But, then one day, it happened. I did everything as normal but this time when I pulled my clothes out after the dry cycle, they were dry! My first suspicion was that the clothes hadn’t been washed in the first place. But no, they had. Over the course of the next week, we realized that, yes, if we selected which clothes went in, we could dry them. No problems.

Let me reiterate, I am afraid that there is something desperately wrong with my washer/dryer. It is drying my clothes.


Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the great day we remember the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the day when 3,000 people were added to their number. A massive event, often taken out of context. For the context we need, we’ll have to go back forty days or so, to Maundy Thursday, the setting of today’s Gospel passage.

The Eleven sit with Jesus in the upper room. He has washed their feet, and Judas has left, presumably to buy something for the festival or to give some money to the poor. With Judas gone, Jesus begins to teach and pray, giving them a new commandment and offering them to the Father in prayer. And in the middle of this teaching and praying, he starts to talk about his departure.

Jesus says, “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me….” Peter winces. Andrew looks away. The rest are somewhere in between. Pain radiates like waves in the room. And Jesus knows it. “Sorrow has filled your hearts,” he says in response.

And then, compounding the sorrow, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Again, the wince. Peter moves as if he is going to say something, something brash like “If you die, I’ll die with you.” But, he’s been told off already tonight, twice, so he stays still. Jesus is going away, and they are not ready. The condemnation stings. They cannot bear all the wisdom that Jesus wants to give them, and Jesus is going away, or so he says, and all he promises is an Advocate, the Spirit of truth? Well, even if that did mean something, what would it mean? How would they know the Spirit was with them? Jesus continues on, teaching and praying. But, the disciples aren’t ready for Jesus to leave.


As you and I have walked this liturgical journey between Easter and Pentecost, I have to admit that I am not ready for Jesus to leave, either. I am not ready for the Alleluias to disappear again. I am not ready to be without the stories of the Risen Jesus walking amidst the disciples. I am not ready for the long, demanding stretches of green Sundays that lie ahead.

We are entering “ordinary time,” as the liturgists call it, the big fly-over zone between Pentecost and the first Sunday of Advent. It is, I think, much easier to be spiritual on the high festival days, when the incense comes out and we focus on this or that important event in the history of God’s work with us in Christ. All too often, I feel like the green bits of the liturgical year are like my dryer: spinning but not producing any heat, keeping things moving just enough so the wrinkles don’t set in, holding place, nothing more.

Perhaps more than anything, I’m not ready because I have a hard time knowing what it means to live in the life of the Spirit. I’m not ready for today. I’m not ready for Eastertide to end. I, like the disciples, am not ready for Jesus to leave.


In the midst of the disciples’ consternation, Jesus makes a remarkable promise: He will send the Spirit. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you.” Without his departure, he cannot go to the place where the Advocate is. Without his departure, he cannot send the Spirit. But, he promises he will.

The Spirit will guide you into all truth, Jesus says, and “will declare to you the things that are to come.” Just like the disciples were guided into truth by Jesus’ teaching, the Spirit will continue to guide them. But, and this is important, the Spirit will only speak what he hears. “He will glorify me,” Jesus says, “because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” What the Father is in all his glory, he has given to Jesus. What Jesus is in all his glory, he will give to the Spirit to give to the Apostles. The Holy Spirit isn’t just the Spirit of Jesus’ Father. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit as well. So, when the apostles fear that they are alone, that Jesus has abandoned them, they can know this one thing: Jesus has not left them. He will send his Spirit.


For those of us sitting here in the 21st century, it is quite normal to talk about someone being with us “in spirit.” That often means that we have a sense of their presence, that they live on in our memories, that they are felt by us to be there, even if they are not. We might call that “remembered presence.” But, remembered presence is not what the Church talks about when it says that Jesus is with us “in Spirit.” The Church teaches that Jesus is personally present among us. He brings himself personally and powerfully into our midst by the Holy Spirit.

But, how would we know this personal presence of Jesus? Is it a feeling that we have, or is there something we can point to and say – there is evidence of Jesus’ personal presence? The Catechism of the Episcopal Church answers this question like this: “We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” In other words, we can know the Spirit of God is with us when things start going suddenly right.

We human beings were created to live in love and harmony with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and with the earth. When the Spirit of God comes, we confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord and from that confession flows an opportunity to live life in a way that is truly human again. But, because it is not the normal way we human beings live, it can come as a shock. It can look like something is desperately wrong. Like I worry about my dryer’s health because it has suddenly started to work, we can get worried that this kind of life, this spiritual life, means that something has gone horribly wrong.

But, no. This kind of loving and harmonious life, when it slips into our world by Jesus’ personal presence in the Holy Spirit, is the way we are meant to live. It is hard work, indeed, and we are given the vast expanse of green Sundays ahead of us, where nothing particularly interesting happens, to practice and live this life of the Spirit. We all now have an opportunity to live in love and harmony with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the earth if we will but listen to what the Holy Spirit will teach us. Pray and listen. With whom do you live in the least love and harmony? God? Yourself? Neighbor? Earth? Pray and listen and ask. The Spirit will show you the place of need and will show you what must be done next. As you open your life to Christ in his Spirit, the green Sundays ahead will turn into a time of pruning, yes, but also of joyful growth. Because when the Holy Spirit comes, things start to go suddenly and wonderfully right. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Photo by Miguel Saavedra

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Home and Household: Thoughts on Pre-Marital Counseling

I will be conducting my first marriage service on the 30th of June and have, as a result, been conducting my first pre-martial counselling sessions. I've found it helpful (and fun) to put together, and I think (hope!) the couple has as well. As every minister's pre-marital counseling is a work in progress, I wanted to put out the outline of the course and get feedback from anyone who was interested in commenting.

The sessions have revolved around the distinction between "Home" and "Household."

"Home" references the relationship side of the equation. "Home is where the heart is," after all. These are many of the soft skills of being together, of living as adults together, of figuring out how to love one another even when you're tired and cranky.

"Household," on the other hand, references all the business-like decisions that have to be made to keep the organization of a home running smoothly. Chores. Money. Meetings. You name it.

Not making this distinction can cause a lot of problems. It's amazing how quickly something like neglecting to take out the trash (a household issue) can turn into an emotional and hurtful fight (a home issue around communication). If we can manage the household well, it takes a lot of pressure off the home life of a couple. And if a couple develops skills in mending their relationship and keeping it passionate and engaging in the first place, all the better.

So, the list of things covered in this first go at pre-marital counseling looked something like this (though not in this order):
  1. What is Marriage, Really?
    1. The biblical portraits of marriage in Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians
    2. An introduction to the home/household distinction
  1. Home - Communication basics, drawing from Crucial Conversations
  2. Household - Household basics - who's responsible for what?
  3. Home - Love Languages, drawing from The Five Love Languages
  4. Household - Money - a la Dave Ramsey
  5. Home - Holding one another accountable, drawing from Crucial Confrontations
  6. Household - Moving Forward Together as a Partnership in the Gospel, drawing from The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family

What do you think? Is there anything missing? What other skills might you cover?

*Picture by Kriss Szkurlatowski

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Retelling Genesis 1-3

I wondered recently if one could retell the story of Genesis 1-3 compellingly and Christianly by beginning with "Once upon a time." This was the result.

Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the whole earth was full of chaos and terror. But, God put his hand to the plow and began to shape it. He took it in his hands like a potter grabs the lump of clay, and he moulded it. Over the course of time, God brought something good out of the chaos, opening up the world into higher and higher levels of order and peace, until one day, he brought out, from the dust of the ground as it were, the first man and the first woman.

He put them in a tilled and kept place, an oasis of peace and harmony in the midst of the chaotic world. It was a time of innocence. A time of peace. God gave them a task: keep the Garden. Expand it. Bring order and peace to the whole chaotic and terror-filled world. And, he said, don't eat of the tree in the center of the Garden, the tree that will let you know the difference between good and evil. You're not ready for that yet. You'll have time to learn that later.

But, just like all of us, Adam and Eve were curious. It didn't help that one of the creatures from outside the Garden had slithered in and was intent on bringing inside the outer chaos, of disrupting the human being's work before it could even begin. The serpent suggested that God was withholding the difference between right and wrong unfairly, that of course the humans were ready for it right now. The woman ate first. The man ate after her. And God, walking through the Garden that evening, seeing that the disorder from outside the Garden had already taken root in the ones who were to spread his order and peace to the whole chaotic world, saw that things would not work out the way he'd planned.

So, he told them what this new disorder meant: things were broken. The relationship between the man and the woman was broken. The relationship between the humans and the earth was broken. Most wretched of all, the relationship between the humans and God was broken. Sin, disorder, had crept in. Nothing could be the same.

The humans had been ashamed, noticing for the first time that they were naked. But, God would not let them stay naked. He gave them their first set of clothes, a perpetual sign that order must cover chaos, that the work of setting things right has to start with the humans themselves. And he gave them a promise that one day one of the first woman's children would stand up to the serpent. But this time, the human would win. By winning, that human being would give the world a fresh start.

Christians say we know that human's name: Jesus of Nazareth. But what happened between the promise to the first humans and the birth of Jesus is a whole ream of other stories, stories of faithfulness and rebellion, stories of order and chaos, stories of peace and war. Those stories we will have to save for later.

**Picture by kay82

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Portable Narrative (Baptismal Covenant, part 4)

Q.1 Celebrant  Do you believe in God the Father?
People   I believe in God, the Father almighty,
  creator of heaven and earth.

Q.2 Celebrant  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People   I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
      and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
      and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 304

(The belated fourth installment in the Baptismal Covenant series)

So far in this series, I have framed covenant in biblical terms together with the way the Prayer Book talks about covenant. The takeaway is that nothing that the Baptismal Covenant asks of its people is anything other than can be "proved" (in that old Anglican sense) from Holy Scripture. This is important. The BC formulates a path of discipleship rooted in Scripture.

The first two questions of the Covenant are the first two articles of the Apostles' Creed. As one of my undergraduate teachers used to say that the creed is a "portable narrative." It hits the highlights of the Gospel story from beginning to end. I would add that the creed, when memorized, creates a set of useful "places" to go in the mind. They are nooks and crannies in which you can put other memories, other thoughts about God, self, and other. Memorizing this is not an end in itself. It is something that creates the ability to learn and retain more than one would otherwise be able to capture and keep.

Why put the creed first in the Baptismal Covenant? Because it provides the narrative context for everything that follows. In effect, the creed stands at the head of the Baptismal Covenant as both context and legitimation. The way of life that we request of our baptizands is sufficiently weird that we have to justify in advance why this kind of life means something. Our answer: this crazy way of life means something only because of the story told in the creed.

What about people who struggle with believing the creed? There is a certain amount of "as if" here. If you don't believe the creed but still act according to the rest of the Covenant, you are acting as though you believe it. If you're okay living with that kind of ambiguity, that's up to you; however I have a hard time imagining taking the rest of the BC seriously without some kind of grounding in these basic statements of Christian belief.

The basic elements of the portable narrative revolve around the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father stands at the head of the creed as almighty creator of heaven and earth, already the Father because of his everlasting relationship with the Son. The Son has a very earthly life: conceived, born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended to the dead, rose, ascended, coming again. The creed is clear about the continuity of Jesus' earthly life and his resurrected, ascended, and reigning life. Without this continuity, without the Jesus who died and yet reigns and is coming again, everything else that is to follow (including the third article of the creed) makes little sense.

This portable narrative stands at the head as context and legitimation for the way of life to follow, a life just weird enough to need that context and justification. The next instalment in this series will begin to look at the life of the baptized as the life of the Spirit.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Holy Saturday

It's Holy Saturday. The church sits empty - desolate. Not even the sign of Christ's presence remains. It is empty, because we remember Christ's death. There was a time when the Son was not, but it was not before the Incarnation. It was the time of Christ's hollowness, the time of Christ's descent into Hell. For this one day, we remember the day not in which God in his humanity died, but the day in which God stayed dead. We hold our breath. We wait.

It is hard to hold one's breath, but this is the first year where I have felt it. I feel the waiting all around me. The world is about to burst forth into new day . . . but not yet. This is the time of Christ's hollowness. This is the time of Christ's harrowing. This is the time of Christ's eternal sleep.

Tomorrow will be the time of Hell's hollowness, of Hell's harrowing, of Hell's eternal sleep, doomed as it is to spit forth the saints of old and to have the human race in its grip no longer. The gates of Hell are torn down. There is nothing to keep us there save our own hollowness, our own harrowing, or own eternal sleep.

Oh, that Christ would burst forth from the grave! Oh, that Christ would finish his work and not be absent from us any longer. Oh, that Christ would make himself known again, to send forth his disciples into the nations, to heal the world and bring people to his love and knowledge.

Oh, that it might be. Maranatha! Come, Holy Spirit, come! Fill our hollowness. Negate our harrowing. Wake us from our sleep.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Do It Tomorrow

Over Indian food on the banks of the Cam, the conversation between myself and the Vicar turned to time management. This caught my attention because as a David Allen acolyte, I have been through my own personal journey from chaos to order. And, as a priest, I am always looking for ways to help myself and my fellow clergy better keep our promises.

He continued talking about a string of things I'd never heard about before: closed lists, the manana principle, and knowing when you're done for the day. Wait, what? You, a vicar, can know when you're done with work for the day?

Yep. That's the power of Mark Forster's little book, Do It Tomorrow (US version).

I picked up the book the same week and devoured it on a train ride to and from London. I implemented the ideas last week, and they have upended the way I look at and practice time management in at least four ways.

First, it has changed the way I look at a day's work. One of the book's promises is that you can know what a day's worth of work is, and that you can complete it every day. Forster says that you can only keep all the promises you've made to yourself and others if your work output is roughly equal to your work input. Basically, a day's work is the work that arrives on your desk during the day (in this case, yesterday), plus anything else you need to do to keep active projects functioning. When you've done that, you're done.

Second, the book has changed the way I look at lists. There's a distinction between open and closed lists. An open list is, well, open. You can always add things to it. If you work on perennially open lists, then all you can do is 'prioritize.' By default, a few important things will always make their way to the bottom, where they will die. A closed list, on the other hand, is one to which you add nothing. Being closed, it can be completed, which is motivating. The point of the books' recommendations are to create the possibility of making and completing a closed list every day.

Third, the book has changed the way I look at urgency. With an open list, things get done when they get done. Forster recommends that there are only really three categories of urgency: emergency, urgent, and tomorrow. Emergencies are when something comes up that forces you to drop everything else and leave the building. Urgent items require a response or an action the same day, not necessarily at this moment. But, the genius of the system is that everything else is given an urgency of tomorrow. Do It Tomorrow is the name of the book after all.

Fourth, the book has changed the way I handle email. Since a day's work is the work you receive in a day, a day's worth of email is the email you received yesterday. He suggests scanning email for urgency. If it is isn't an emergency or urgent, put it in a folder marked "Tomorrow." The next morning, move all the email to a folder marked "Today" and work through it. You should be able to deal with all your email for the day in 30 minutes to an hour. I spent less than thirty minutes this morning dealing with all my email from yesterday. I have had the rest of the day to deal with my day's work, a closed list that included drafting a piece of this blog.

Wrapping up, I highly recommend Forster's Do It Tomorrow. It's recommendations are easily implemented, and the results are profound and immediate. My Vicar friend said that after he bought the book, his staff team, seeing the difference, started using it themselves. Since then, his entire deanery has joined in.

So, go ahead. Read it and let me know what you think. Tomorrow.