The Rev. J. Gary Brinn

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Apocalyptic- A Problem in Process

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I have recently been thinking through one model of how we respond when our belief system no longer coheres with the world around us, with our experiences. This is the ground of constructive theology.

A great example is the shifting “doctrine of God” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Layers of text show us a shifting understanding of YHWH. God begins as the warrior/tribal god of the Moses people that leads them out of Egypt and assists them in conquering the Canaanites. By the time of the Babylonian Exile, God has been reconceived as the Creator, the God of all nations. Faced with repeated defeat, the Israeli cultus could either abandon its god as weak, or change its understanding of God. The “doctrine of God” continued to change. It was transformed by Hellenism, by neo-Platonism, by the Enlightenment.

This theological trajectory represents one strategy for the crisis of incoherence. The other strategy is the prophetic call, the requirement that we change our experience in the world to bring it in line with our theology. We might think of the Civil Rights movement (and its predecessor, the Abolitionist movement) as one example of this strategy.

The final strategy is apocalyptic. I have been working this out in a number of papers, but the basic idea is that when the tension between experience and theology has become so great as to cause cognitive dissonance, and neither of the above listed strategies will resolve the crisis, reality (experience) is marginalized. Since one can assume that certain events in the real world are not responsive to prophetic demands (earthquakes, military defeat, plague), this is primarily an issue when theology has become too rigid.

The period after the Exile, especially the Hellenistic age, is a great example of this move. In the rise of apocalyptic thought, exemplified in the Book of Daniel, we see an abandonment of “real world” strategies. The “world” is understood as imperfect or corrupt, and our theology only need cohere with an “ideal world” as imagined by the apocalyptic author.

The resulting theology may well serve as a anesthetic, but it cannot motivate a people to be involved in the world, except where so doing will bring about the eschaton, the manifesting of the ideal world. And this is almost always seen as a crisis event, bloodshed and destruction.

Those who hold an apocalyptic theology in today’s world have no reason to work for peace, for ecologic sustainability. For them, actions that accelerate the crisis are good. They are among the elect, they need not be worried.

Today’s world is in crisis. Since the bombs first dropped on Japan, we have rapidly moved towards the destruction of humankind and all life on earth. Scientists tell us that this generation of children will live to see the oceans die. The “Left Behind”crowd must be rejoicing in the destruction and injustice so evident in human action.

Progressive Christians must renounce apocalyptic theologies as inadequate guides for living in the world. Like many important scholars, theologians, and clergy persons of the past, going all the way back to the Patristic period, we must question the canonicity of apocalyptic texts in Scripture. Martin Luther had his doubts, so can we. The Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel, both fictions, have little place in our pulpits. And when they are used it must be done with extreme care.

Apocalyptic as a theological strategy is dangerous. I am still trying to understand how this relates to other forms of eschatological thought, to Jesus’ own pronouncements of the kingdom. Surely Jesus’ call for social justice represents a theological model of eschatology that does not accelerate crisis!

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Billings Sermon

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This morning I will be competing for the Billings Preaching Prize, a competition limited to 2nd and 3rd year M.Div. students here at Harvard Divinity. You have a total of 10 minutes for your reading and holimly. I’ve adapted a homily from my work at the hospital. The competition usually takes place in the Divinity Hall chapel, from the pulpit where Emerson delivered his famous “Divinity School Address.” Unfortunately, emergency repairs have closed the chapel, so we will be in our other chapel, Andover. Here are the reading and the sermon:

Luke 5:1-8 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

As a second career seminarian, you might think I came to my call late in life. And it is true that the decision was made in the days after the 9/11 attacks, in days when every breath carried the odor of destruction and death. But it was not a late call that brought me to divinity school. In fact, I knew I was called to ministry as a 12 year old. And over the next 25-plus years I flirted with a vocation in ordained ministry on several occasions. I always ran away, realizing that I was a wreck, unworthy, unable to serve the community of Christ. I realized that I was a sinner.

Simon Peter was a sinner too. We tend to make Peter into a very two-dimensional character, he can be a bit thick at times, and that whole “you will deny me,” who can forget that? Peter can proclaim Jesus the Messiah one moment, and be called “Satan” the next. I am convinced that Peter’s name, and remember that Peter is his nickname and means “rock”, is based on how hard his head is and how dim he can seem. A friend of mine used to use the expression about as smart as a box of rocks, and it fits. But Peter is part of the pastoral care team!

Peter the pastor heals and preaches and brings the presence of God with him. When Jesus is dealing with major issues, he brings that pastoral care team with him onto the mountain to pray. You can name them, Mary and Peter, and John, and even Judas. They are all on the pastoral care team that is Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing ministry. They are pastoral care interns learning from the greatest teacher ever. And every one of those men and women walking around Galilee and down to Jerusalem had one thing in common. They were all sinners.

We forget Peter’s response to the call narrative in Luke’s gospel because the next line is so rich in meaning. Jesus tells Peter that he will make him a “fisher of humans.” That text we all know. But how many of us remembered what Peter said first? “Dude, go away, I am a sinner.”
Today, we are called to be ministers to one another, to pastor one another. We form pastoral care teams and we train one another in skills like listening and praying. We live as church. But for some of us, being a pastor comes far easier than being pastored.

What happens when someone tries to pastor you? You may be tempted to say, “Go away.” Because you are tired? Maybe. Because you don’t believe? Could be. Because you are not worthy? Not a chance. Because that pastor is a sinner too. And that pastor is loved by God, like you. And there is nothing you can do to get away from that love. Oh, you might try to drown it out. You might send the pastor back out the door. You might ignore the pastor next to you in the pew. But like Peter with his head hard as stone, God is going to ignore your protests and love you anyways, just as Jesus ignored Peter’s request, “Go away, for I am a sinner.”

They say there are few guarantees in life. I don’t agree. Here are my guarantees for today. Today, I guarantee I will say something that I shouldn’t, that I won’t mean, that will sound different than I intended. Today I will hurt someone’s feelings. Today I will fail to hear and to see what someone so much wants me to hear and to see. Here are my maybe’s for today: Today I might know that I have failed, have fallen short. I might see my mistakes. I might get a chance to apologize.

And there is a guarantee that isn’t mine, a guarantee made by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

I choose today to be in this community, to be fully present, even as the sinner that I am, even with the guarantee that I will fail. Like Peter, like you, I have chosen to get up and follow. What else can I do?

In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge” there is a defrocked priest who explains to the protagonist Durrell why he is running: “It is not punishment I would have to face, for I could easily face execution or imprisonment. It is love and forgiveness which I must face, and which I cannot endure. […] God is the one who relentlessly pursues me and whom I forever flee.” And you know what: that priest is right. God’s forgiveness knows no limit. The only limit is our courage to accept that love, from God and from one another.

Today be open to the presence of God in one another, even in our mistakes and imperfections. I am a sinner and will be when I come to minister to you today. You will be a sinner when you minister to me. And yet we choose to love one another as God loves us, without condition, without hesitation, without giving up. May it always be so. Amen.

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Sermon on Doubting Thomas

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Delivered 4/15/07 at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational

You might have noticed that the title of this sermon is a nod to William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In it, Henry refers to his warriors as a “happy few” and a “band of brothers.” I had no idea when I chose this title that it would apply to those coming out to worship this morning, that it would take courage to brave the monsoon! So good morning, and welcome to this band of courageous brothers and sisters.

The standard sermon for today’s lectionary, and especially for the story of Doubting Thomas, goes something like this: Poor Thomas, he just didn’t have enough faith. It’s a good thing we have enough faith. Yeah us! Or maybe, I know you’re having a hard time believing the teachings of the church in light of the real world, but don’t be a doubting Thomas. This is not going to be that standard sermon. If that’s what you are looking for this morning, you might still be able to catch the service at another local church. But if you want to hear why this story finds its way into the gospel and what it can tell us about living as Christians today, hang around.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that I’m an author, and the Gospel of John is in manuscript form, and here I am sitting before my editor waiting to hear the magic words. No, not Pulitzer, though those are pretty magic as well. I’m talking the ultimate magic words: cash advance. But instead what I hear is: “Let’s talk about the motivation of Thomas in the final chapter. I’m not sure you’ve made your case. The man has seen Lazarus raised from the dead, the storm stilled, walking on water, miracle after miracle. Why doesn’t he believe now? It’s just not plausible.”
We probably all feel a bit like my fictional editor. Just because something happened while I was out getting the milk and bread doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. Judas Didymus Thomas is believed by many to be the brother of Jesus, and has been with these folks, these women and men traveling with and learning from Jesus, for several years. They’ve been through some amazing times together. And they’ve seen miracles, they’ve seen death defeated. So why doubt now?
To understand this text it helps to think a little bit about what was going on among the followers of Jesus when this text was written. Early Christians didn’t know what to believe. Even his immediate circle of followers wasn’t sure what to make of Jesus. Christianity was moving towards orthodoxy, right belief, which really just means majority belief or belief of the guys that have the biggest swords or the friends with the biggest swords. The authors and authorizers of the Gospels were deeply involved in this struggle to understand the Christ event. Jesus mattered, they knew that, but he always seemed to be just beyond their understanding.
One area of conflict after the first generation of apostles had died, after the immediate witnesses were gone, was how were they to understand the resurrection? Was the resurrection bodily, with flesh and blood? Or was it a resurrection of spirit. This was a question not just about Jesus, but a question about what it meant to be human. Belief in a bodily resurrection was widespread among the Judeans after the Babylonian Exile, but wasn’t part of the Greco-Roman system of belief, so there was a bit of a cultural mismatch as the gospel of Jesus spread beyond its Judean roots. This gospel story affirms the physicality of the resurrection, flesh and blood, stuff you could touch. One hint of the counter-argument can be seen in the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus.
Another struggle was between those who would come to define orthodox Christian belief and those who adopted a viewpoint we could loosely call Gnostic. We don’t need to spend much time on what that meant, it should suffice to say that the apostles most associated with the heterodox Gnostics were Mary Magdalene and Judas Didymus Thomas. Yes, the female apostle who is written out of any leadership role in the Jesus community, and by the time of Gregory the Great has been conflated with the woman taken in adultery, has been re-cast as prostitute, and our poor bumbling doubting Thomas. Our text is about confirming that Jesus was resurrected in the body, and it is about deciding whose understanding of the Christ event is correct. That is not to say that these events did not happen. But it helps us to see the humans involved in the gospel story, in the creation of the gospels, in the decisions about which stories were written down and which were not.
So what are we supposed to do with the story of Doubting Thomas? If this text is about doctrinal struggles, what can a Christian today learn from it? Well, we can all admit that Thomas comes off looking like a knucklehead. But they all look like knuckleheads. Let’s start with Simon Peter. In the Lucan version of his call, we always skip to the line where Jesus says “I’ll make you a fisher of humans.” We ignore Peter’s first response. “Dude, I’m unrighteous. Go away.” I suspect Peter gets nicknamed Rock not because he is “the Rock of the Church” but because he is about as smart as a box of rocks. Who can forget the denials? Of course, he gets it right sometimes too. But don’t we all.
Then there are James and John, so rowdy that they get nicknamed the Sons of Thunder. I like to think of them as the biblical Bash Brothers. If you’re the right age to know the Mighty Ducks movies, you know what I’m talking about. “Dude, let us be your top two guys?” they ask Jesus. And Jesus’ response? “Dudes, you so do not know what you are asking.”
These guys don’t know what’s going on, don’t know what to believe, the gospels writers tell us that Jesus isn’t even trying to make it clear, because it will become clear on resurrection morning. The preaching and teaching and miracle, the feast in the Upper Room and the murder on the tree, it will be clear. The Holy Spirit will comfort them and inspire them and they will change the world. But they’ll still be a bunch of knuckleheads! Even after the resurrection. After he has assumed a leadership role in the early church, Peter still blunders at Antioch. “Unclean food? What unclean food?” They don’t know what to believe, what to do, how to act. But they do know this. Jesus changes everything!
They tried to explain Jesus in terms of his own Judean religion. Davidic messiah, except he didn’t create an independent Israel. Suffering Servant, but what does that mean exactly? Son of Man, more confusing than Suffering Servant! They took up a term of the Roman Empire, Son of God, which seemed to fit nicely and matched Jesus’ own description of his relationship with God. It had the added benefit of suggesting there was another kingdom that had the final say, something more powerful than the brutal fist of Rome. They used all of these titles and more trying to describe who Jesus was, what he did, what he meant. And in the midst of this confusion and this grasping for meaning, they did an amazing thing. They built a new world.
I have no doubt that the mixture of sheer terror and overwhelming hope of that one weekend in Jerusalem stayed with the apostles, women and men, for the rest of their lives. The confusion, the shock. But they took their evangelion, literally the good proclamation, and they went out there and said this: Jesus changes everything.
And here we are two millennia later. The name Jesus is controlled by the neo-Pharisees, selective literalists who have the audacity to speak for God and who claim to have the “fundamentals” right. They’ve reduced Jesus to death insurance, to an excuse for self-righteousness, to a nationalistic warrior. We sit back so ashamed of what has been done in the name of Jesus, that we are afraid to speak it in public. Jesus has been co-opted by Empire, by the individualism of the Enlightenment, by the thinly disguised selfishness of our economic system. And here we sit, barely speaking, ashamed. You don’t have to be a theologian or a biblical scholar to see what is at stake. You don’t even have to be certain. You can be a knucklehead and spread the good news!
When I get up in the morning, a week and three snooze-buttons behind schedule, I can do so knowing this. God is good. Jesus changes everything. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his thirteen-volume “Church Dogmatics,” thought for a moment and responded “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Even a knucklehead can get that! Do you know that Jesus loves you? That God is good? Does knowing Jesus change your life? Because if this is a church, if this is about the evangelion, then we must be the ones to proclaim it. Jesus lives! Reclaim the name. When others preach hatred and division in the name of Christ, confront them, tell them they are worshipping idols of their own creation. If progressives are silent then Christianity will die a slow irrelevant death.
The Church of Christ is about more than homeless shelters, recycling and war protests. Those things are important, they are part of the great commandment, love God above all things and love your neighbor as you love yourself. But there are two “greats” that Jesus gave us. The Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Go forth and make disciples of all nations. Telling people about Jesus is essential to Christian identity, is important to our own living of Christ in the world. That band of knuckleheads, a few dozen women and men, changed the world. And the world today wants Jesus, a real authentic mysterious Jesus, not the manufactured buddy Jesus / judging Jesus of the tyrant God found in the public media. Easter Jesus is always just beyond our grasp, and that’s okay.
The public media is busy deconstructing Jesus. The DaVince Code, the Jesus Family tomb, the Gospel of Judas, any attack on Christianity and Christian belief is okay. But there is a world between the media attack on all Christian belief and the neo-Pharisees, that world is us. We are members of a progressive Christianity stretching back two thousand years. We recognize that Christianity has changed, has always changed in response to the dynamic mysterious creativity which is life on this miracle planet. And Christianity must continue to change. We must act, before the reckless greed and hate-filled beliefs so dominant in our culture destroy our planet, and its ability to sustain life. Before the theology that makes humans demi-gods, tyrants over the planet, free to do as we want, kills us.
I’m not asking us to do something easy. I was telling you the truth when I said I wake up knowing God is good and Jesus changes everything. That doesn’t mean I know anything else! I’m pretty clear in my identity. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to meet you. I’m a knucklehead. If I claim to know what Jesus is about, what God is about, if I claim to know how we should live, how am I different than the religious political extremists on the right? Is the choice between silence and lies? When the divine is always just beyond our grasp, what can we do?
This is where faith comes in. This is where belief in things unseen really matters. I believe that if we prayerfully engage the world, if we bring sacrament and Scripture and love with us into the world, we can change it. We can be the leaven in the loaf, not because we can do it on our own, but because Christ is with us when we are gathered in his name, because the good news is the tree and the empty tomb, because Easter is joyful hope, stunned confusion, it is fear and love , it is life in our amazing God.
We must reach back to that original Easter morning, and tell the world! Change the world. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen indeed. Jesus changes everything. If Peter with his head of stone, if the Bash Brothers and Thomas and Mary Magdalene, if they could go out and preach, so can we. They didn’t know what they were doing either. They lived in that Easter moment. So can we. So must we. Welcome my knuckleheaded sisters and brothers. Welcome to the joy of life in Christ! Proclaim the name! Jesus the Christ, our salvation. Amen.

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Great Thoughts

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I’ve read several blogs that contain a “Quote of the Day.” I could never keep that up! But it might be nice to share some of the great works I am lucky enough to read as part of my education. So here is the first in a series of “Great Thoughts”:

“A God who gives easy divine approval to our projects, and is the means for legitimating and even sanctifying what we already are and believe, places on us too little tension to draw us out of ourselves, out of our fixed habits and attitudes and ideas.”

-Gordon D. Kaufman from In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (1993)

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Morning Prayer- Easter Monday at St E’s

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Call to Worship

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
– 1 Peter 1:3

Opening Prayer

Christ,
We are your Easter people,
Stunned, confused, overwhelmed,
Together.
We gather at tables to pray,
To study,
To celebrate,
To share your meal.
Easter us always,
Keep us in the uncertainty of that night,
The joy of that morning,
Bind us in community,
As we Easter one another,
Rejoicing,
The Body of Christ,
Together.
Amen.

Responsive Reading

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
and the LORD’s compassion is over all that the LORD has made.

All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

-Psalm 145:8-13

Scripture– Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians 3:2-3

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all;
and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Reflection

This summer, in Disciples of Christ churches throughout the country, pastors and lay leaders will enter their sacristies, remove their chalices, and carefully wrap them. They will deal with airport security, bumpy roads, and shipping companies, as they and their chalices travel to Fort Worth, where they will hold their General Assembly. And after an act of communal worship, they will pack up a chalice and take it home with them. But it won’t be the chalice with which they arrived!

From this summer on, every Sunday morning as Disciples of Christ ministers raise the chalice and speak the words of institution, they will be holding the chalice from another community of Christ, and another community of Christ will be celebrating communion with their chalice, a denominational act of communion transcending geographical boundaries, theological divisions, a communion with the Body of Christ.

We don’t know exactly how long the original apostles were together. Tradition suggests a period of around three years. But some were called early, some late. The Sons of Thunder. Judas Didymus Thomas. Mary Magdalene. Simon the Rock. They came together, ate, prayed, learned. Then came Jerusalem, the tree, the empty tomb.

And then they changed the world. They took Christ and they took one another, and they went their separate ways, making disciples of all nations, as their savior had instructed them. Thomas in Syria, James in Jerusalem, Simon Peter in Antioch. They carried the good news of Christ. And in all of the places they preached, they celebrated the communal meal of remembrance, they transformed one another, and they moved on.

We all move on. We come together and move apart. Like chalice swapping, we swap bits of ourselves. We write ourselves into the hearts of others, as Christ has written himself into our hearts. As Paul tells the Corinthians, we are living letters, love letters, we are word to one another, communion and reunion. We are love.

And move we must, from our first moment of life, to that last goodbye. Are you ready to say goodbye? To say hello? To change one life? To change hundreds? Thousands?

As chaplain interns at Saint Elizabeth’s, it is our season of goodbyes. Some will pass this way again, others will find new ministries, new chances to write and to be written on, to love and to serve. We will be letters from each other to new communities. What a grand adventure! Amen.

Prayers of the People

God, you are our joy, you are our author, you are communion and goodbye. Fill us with the grace to say goodbye, with the strength to carry one another, to carry Easter with us in all that we do! Let us be love letters from one another, poems of Christ. We join your saints, your church, your people, as we pray:

Blessed are you eternal God,
Your creation is filled with blessing.
We thank you for your church universal and its ministries of love,
Fill us with your Spirit that we might love one another.
We thank you for your Son, for that miraculous morning,
May we always stand amazed before the mystery of the empty tomb.
We pray for those who are sick, who are tired, who are broken,
Help us to comfort them and to comfort one another.
We celebrate the lives of those who have departed even as we mourn our own losses,
May they join the saints in your presence.
We bring you our concerns, personal and global, spoken and in the quiet of our hearts,
(Please add your own petitions).

God, this is the day you have made for us, even in the midst of our pain and brokenness, the new day dawns, babies are born, love happens. We praise you and thank you always.
Amen

Blessing

May you always walk in this certain knowledge: Nothing can separate you from the love of God, nothing you do, nothing others can do. Go in peace and love one another as God loves you. Amen.

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Just Jake

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During the summer, I have the amazing privilege of working with several hundred children who spent time at a camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Now, before you add me to the roster of saints, you should know that this was a camp for rich kids and I am well paid. But it is a chance to be out in God’s creation, to contribute to the moral formation of the next generation of business people, lawyers, teachers… Last summer, I was a senior staff member, what is called a division director. As such, I had day-to-day responsibilities for about 70 little boys between the ages of six and eleven, along with twenty-four college and high-school students who worked as cabin counselors and instructors. In addition to our role as in loco parentis, substitute parents for the children in our care, we also played the role of disciplinarian. Now summer camp isn’t about discipline, its about fun, so we tried to be careful, to use an easy touch. No one wants to be the assistant principle! Anybody who wants that job probably shouldn’t have it. The story I’d like to tell you comes from one of those encounters, one of those moments when I was the bad guy.

Now, Jake wasn’t one of mine. He was an intermediate boy, a twelve year old with whom I had little interaction, and here it was, the night before a changeover. Changeovers happened every two weeks, when some several hundred of the campers would leave and new batch would join those who remained. Jake was one of those leaving. Now, I have to tell you, camp friendships are intense. You can spend more time with a friend in camp than you will another friend in school. This is especially true of your cabin mates. There are often a dozen boys sleeping in one room smaller than the bedrooms each of these boys have back home in their McMansions. So changeover is emotional. One custom the kids have developed over the years is to sign shirts for one another. But kids don’t just sign…

So there I am at flagpole, the glorious end of the day, and there is this boy with his signed white shirt. And boy is it signed. I don’t know who started it, whether it was Jake or a bunkmate, but this shirt was covered in profane, sexualized words and drawing. And he had it on in front of the whole camp, in front of the whole senior staff! I had to act. I pulled Jake out of the group, asked him to remove the shirt (he did have another underneath lest you think I ordered the child to strip!) and marched him up to the Cooler. The very name was ominous. The Cooler was the office of the camp owner/director. It was where serious issues went. And if you’d read this shirt, you’d have thought it pretty serious. Violent sexual images don’t belong on a twelve year old.

We never made it. Walkie-talkie traffic was jumping, things were busy. Jake’s shirt was not going to make it onto the radar of the camp director that night. So I turned the shirt in, and turned Jake loose. He was terrified. Was he going to be DNR’ed? At camp DNR means “Do Not Re-admit.” Even worse, was I going to tell his Mom when she picked him up the next day?

Now, this kid was bright, personable, good looking, but he didn’t know the ways of the world… he certainly should never have told me he didn’t want me to tell his Mom, because that became the very thing I planned to do. A mother who could inspire that sort of fear could certainly teach her son about appropriate language, especially given the attitude toward women seen on Jake’s shirt. But somehow, that’s not what happened. God happened instead, or the Holy Spirit to be exact, because I am convinced that I could never have done what came next.

I turned to Jake before he left and ask him one question. “Jake, is this the man you want to be?” His eyes filled with tears, he looked up at me, and quietly answered. “No.” And the words were put into my mouth again. “Jake, the man you want to be is already there. I know you don’t really know him yet, but he’s there. Let him out. Pretend like you are already him and you will be.”

The next morning at breakfast Jake approached me. “Do you know what is going to happen to me?” I didn’t. I told Jake that he might get a free pass, that things were busy, that the shirt was gone and the lesson learned. He thanked me, and we spoke once again about the man he wanted to be.

Several hours later as kids rolled out of camp, this boy who I barely knew came running up, threw himself around my waist, thanking me, telling me goodbye, promising to be the man he knew he could be, that he wanted to be.

My question for you is, are you the saint you want to be? That God calls you to be. See, that saint is in there. God is calling it out. The church is calling it out. I am calling it out. Like Lazarus called out from the tomb, new life and health from stink and decay. Like Samuel called out in the Tabernacle. Fear not. She is not really dead. The saint, buried though she may be, though he may be, is vital and alive, and waiting for you to call it by name. Saint Jake won’t be perfect, but he might just be. And may it ever be so. Amen.

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Messages and Angels

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Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
– Genesis 28:10-14

You may have seen the trucks barreling down the highway with the company’s initials in bold capital letters. G.O.D. Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. The first time I encountered one of these trucks I was offended. I’m not usually sensitive about these things, but somehow the clash between crass commercialism and faith was just a bit much. But as time wore on I found my attitude changing. And it was all because of angels.

Now, I didn’t have a dream. There was no ascending and descending from heaven. And certainly no wrestling and no dislocated hips. But there was a beautiful collision between the idea of the Guarantee of God/G.O.D. and the certainty that God’s messengers, the angels, really do show up on time. I can’t really say if G.O.D.’s messengers have a good track record, but they can’t match the all-time eternal delivery service.

Today everything is fair game. We’ve had a cigar-smoking God played by George Burns and an beer-swilling angel played by John Travolta. We won’t even go near “Life of Brian”! All of this irreverence comes to a halt, however, a two times of the year. God’s delivery service gives the two messages on which our faith pivots. You will bear a child. He is not here, he is risen.

What messages does God have for us today? Where do we find angels in today’s world?

Prayer: Father, you send us your Son, you send us the Spirit, you send us angels. Make our ears keen and our eyes sharp! Help us to always attend to the messengers in our midst, those bearing God-ness to us, in message and in deed. Awaken us to your call. Amen.

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A confession

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We’ve been using the traditional communal confession at church in recent weeks. You know the one… “things I have done and things I have failed to do.” And I realized this week that it doesn’t really do it for me. It doesn’t express my understanding of covenant breach, of broken relationship, of sin. So here is a first try at a new communal confession.

God,
We have participated in evil,
Woven into the fabric of our lives,
The fabric of ourselves,
We have been disordered.
We have placed ourselves before loving you,
Before loving others.
At times we have even failed to love ourselves.
We create systems of selfishness,
Convince ourselves that we are better,
More deserving than others.
We anesthetize our fear with goods,
Goods bought through unjust systems,
Goods coated in blood.
Please forgive us.
We confess our sins, our selfishness.
We rely on your mercy
And the love of your utterly selfless son,
Trusting in infinite love,
To lift us,
For short moments,
For eternity,
From the misery of our sins.
Amen.

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Changing Christianity

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Christianity has always changed. It is a dynamic faith in a dynamic world. Even before it was called Christianity it was shaped by the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. When the faith was co-opted by empire with the conversion of Constantine, the religion changed. And it wasn’t just politics and power that produced change. The invention of the printing press and the availability of the Bible to greater numbers was certainly critical in the development of Protestantism. I cannot imagine the doctrine of sola scriptura without Gutenberg!

Is change bad? Some make that claim. Selective Literalists claim that there is an unchanging moral code stretching back to Moses, though as the name I use for them suggests, they select which passages to apply literally and which to ignore. I refuse to use the word “fundamentalists” for this group, as it suggests that they have something fundamentally right!

Our understanding of what it is to be human changes. The idea that we could completely destroy life on earth would have never occurred to the Christians of prior centuries. They viewed the world as eternal, expecting a divine act to bring it all to a halt. Today we know that we can destroy the world without God’s help. And the hyper-individualized Christianity that has been created to justify greed and nationalism is to blame in large part for the coming collapse of life on Earth.

It is time for Christians to change the faith with intention, to examine and to challenge constructs like prosperity theology and human dominion over the planet. I only pray we can do so quickly enough to re-order our world and to save it. Christ would expect no less of us.

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Dude, wow! A reflection on scripture

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Genesis 28:15-17

And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Reflection:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God.” Jacob’s exclamation is a declaration of the holiness of what is nothing more than a spot in the wilderness, a place to lay his head on some stones and sleep. He opens his heart and mouth to praise God.

Many of us can rattle off the lines in Psalm 118 that begin “this is the day the Lord has made.” Have we ever tried to apply it to a holy place? “This is the place the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Jacob declares the awesomeness of God. Dude! Radical praise calls for radical language, but sometimes even that fails us. We can barely pull up the deep sighs Paul talks about in the face of the incredible beauty that is life in Christ

Friends laugh when I tell them my two favorite prayers. They are short, and so worked into my being that they allow me to often fill Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing.” The prayers are “Wow!” and “Thy will, not mine, be done.” They express my awareness of God’s love for me, and my declaration of my love for God.. Like Jacob, I see this place, this time, this life as awesome. This is the place of God, the time of God, the love of God. Wow!

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