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Ash Wednesday Morning Prayer

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Call to Worship

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana. ~ Groucho Marx

Opening Prayer

Amazing creative God,
You shock us constantly,
You pour grace through the cracks in our lives,
Even in the winter cold it leaks in,
And warms our hearts.
Saint Groucho Marx?
Who knew?
But the wisdom is there
Shining through the humor,
Time does fly
And when the time has flown
And it is the banana’s time
Fruit flies like the banana,
Death and birth,
All on your time,
God’s time.
Open us to the truth of God’s time.
Amen.

Responsive Reading

O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the LORD, O you God’s faithful ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name.
For God’s anger is but for a moment;
God’s favor is for a lifetime.
weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,

so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

-from Psalm 30

Scripture- Matthew 1:1-16

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
and Isaac the father of Jacob,
and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
and Perez the father of Hezron,
and Hezron the father of Aram,
and Aram the father of Aminadab,
and Aminadab the father of Nahshon,
and Nahshon the father of Salmon,
and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab,
and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth,
and Obed the father of Jesse,
and Jesse the father of King David.

Reflection

Okay, so I stopped a little early. We didn’t get all the way to Jesus. And you must think I’m truly off my rocker opening an Ash Wednesday service by quoting Groucho Marx. And while we’re at it, if we’re going to read the genealogy of Jesus, shouldn’t we read it at Christmas? Don’t worry, this train isn’t off the tracks yet. This morning, we are invited to reflect on time, specifically God’s time. You might not have noticed as I sped through the list, but three mothers appear in this partial list of male lineage. Any of the three would justify a sermon, but for the moment, let’s stick with Rahab. You see, to most Jews in the centuries after Ezra, Rahab is a problem.

Rahab’s story begins when Moses leads the people of YHWH across the Reed Sea. God’s instructions as recorded in the Bible are clear, the Israelites are to conduct an ethnic cleansing, wiping the Canaanites from the land in one genocidal campaign. But they don’t! Several groups survived and became part of the people of Israel. The Gibeonites survive. And so does Rahab and her family in Jericho.

We all know the Jericho story. March around, blow horns, walls come down. But we must also remember that those behind the door with the red cord were spared, the red cord, not unlike the lamb’s blood of Passover, allowed death to pass by Rahab’s door. The reason? When the Israelite spies had earlier been cornered in Jericho, they hid in the house of a prostitute, and that prostitute was Rahab. Rahab confessed that YHWH was God and helped the spies escape. In return, they promised that she and her family would be saved.

Now let’s rewind. Our text is the genealogy of Jesus. These are the great and noble ancestors from the house of David who are covenanted to YHWH, this is the stump of Jesse that will produce the Messiah, this is the lineage that will outnumber the stars in the sky. A prostitute? And the story of one of the other women in the portion we read, Tamar, is no less troubling.
And then there was God, God who redeems and heals, God who turns a Canaanite prostitute into a worshipful Israelite, who chooses that very house to save the world. God takes what the world would reject, a woman the Israelites believed they were ordered to murder, and from her delivers the redeemer of all mankind.

This didn’t happen over night. There were good times: the glorious kingdom of David, the construction of the Temple under Solomon, the reforms of Josiah and Hezekiah. There were bad times: the fall of the northern kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile, the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes. There were long dark times, let’s be honest. Night comes, but so does the morning, joy comes in the morning! For every Good Friday there is an Easter. Our amazing and wonderful God works on God’s time, not ours. We wait for redemption, humble of heart, repenting of our sins, and God meets us with miracle! The Holy Spirit breaks out in a million places. Rahab, O Rahab, how we envy the joy of your house, the house of the Redeemer!

During this Lent let us consider God’s time, God’s redemption. Let us confess that God alone is worthy of our worship, tie red cords to our door, and wait for joy to break forth. It is there, in the cold and dark days of winter, as we sit in the grey and wait, as we ponder the coldness that sometimes enters our hearts, joy is there, alive, energy and potential waiting to burst forth, to bulb and bloom and bud and beauty! Ah, our amazing God! Find a red cord, remember Rahab, and wait for God’s time. I promise you, joy will come in the morning.

Prayers of the People

Eternal God, we are an expectant people, huddled in the cold and dark, waiting in a concrete and carbon monoxide winter, waiting through Lent, trusting in your love, today, tomorrow, in the morning, always! During the next forty days we ask the blessing to live outside of our own time, to be enfolded in your time, in the power of redemption always ready to break forth. God be patient with us as we bring our praise and petition to you, trusting that your will is the way of miracle, the way of red cords and Rahab!

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 saints, those who have walked in the cold and dark,
who woke up to joy and miracle,
May they walk with us in all that we do.
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 from us 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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Time, a prayer and Ash Wednesday warm-up

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This Sunday evening I am just back from the Carlson Leadership Academy of Sigma Phi Epsilon here in the Northeast region, and am busy banging out my sermon for Ash Wednesday morning worship at the hospital (Sick people don’t take federal holidays, so tomorrow I’m at the hospital, and Tuesday back in class…). My theme is time, the time of 40 days, the time of waiting, God’s time. My call to worship comes from Groucho Marx and my scripture from the genealogy of Jesus, with a focus on Rahab. I’ll post it later in the week. As weird as it sounds, it might just work. But then again, I’ve been known to say “dude” in the pulpit, so what do I know?

Since I was offline all weekend and the stuff up here is more stale than usual, I thought I’d post a prayer I wrote a couple of months ago on the subject of time:

God
You have time
Eternity to be exact
Oceans of space
Galaxies of love
And we are your people
Restless
Moving
An Exodus people
We still gird up our loins
Grab our staffs
And move.

Still us for a few moments
Let us stop in the now
Celebrating all that you are
All that we are
All that your saints have been.

And in a few minutes
When we are back in the thick
The urgency and rush
May we find time to pause
Moments filled
With the eternal peace
Of your love.

Amen

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Eschatology and the Household

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My coursework this term includes a seminar with Helmut Koester on Thessalonians and a course on Buddhist Meditation Techniques. The combination of the former’s eschatology and the latter’s emphasis on practice has prompted some reflection on Jesus as an image of the Buddhist monk. Specifically, I am thinking about the model of the renouncer, one who leaves the household in pursuit of a spiritual life. Jesus fits this model, as do his disciples as they are portrayed in the Gospels. Think of his instructions: let the dead bury the dead, love your enemies for even the wicked love their own. With an eschatological focus and the lifestyle of a wandering band of monks… well you can see where I am going.

This is not to say that I am conflating the two categories. Jesus was no Buddhist. But the pattern of renouncing the household life fits. And it points to a difficulty in the Christian life. So many of Christ’s teachings point to a lifestyle we can’t all copy. Not everyone can drop everything in selfless service to the Kingdom. Society would fall apart! We create structures to maintain the church and stray away from the model of Jesus’ own ministry.

Some would have us ask “what would Jesus do?” The answer, dependent upon your Christology, is that Jesus would do as God would do, and not as we can do. And the Gospels just don’t give us anything to go on, despite the claims of the selective literalists (I refuse to use the term Fundamentalists, which implies that they have it right in some fundamental way).

So how then is the church ever to get it right? How can we as Christians live out of the boundless love of God? I imagine that prayer and sacrament are our only real hope. Not that I want to sound pessimistic. Scripture, tradition, sacrament and community. These are more than enough to get us through.

I’ve always wondered how we managed to turn the lifestyle of one who renounced the household for God’s work into mega-churches and prosperity theology. But then again, it doesn’t seem surprising after all. The life of most Christian in America seems to have little to do with the values of Jesus. They’ve turned the flesh and blood Jesus, the table-turning radical, the man of action, into abstraction… It started with Paul and his abstract Crucified Christ, and never looked back.

If I had a prayer for this entry, it would be that we always be aware that we are constructing an ill-fitting theology from an ineffable encounter with God in Christ.

And for the few that read this blog, especially those here in New England where the weather is fierce, a safe and God-filled night.

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On the Edge

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What do we expect from our God? The Judeans expected a Messiah, a warrior-king that would restore the political independence and military might of Davidic Israel. Some Christians seem to expect a vengeful judge, or maybe a small-minded bookkeeper, tallying the sum total of each life and delivering a judgment, rewarding or punishing. Others look for miracles and signs in an age of skepticism. Then there are those who have given up all expectation for God in this world, for Emmanuel. They see a bleak and empty world and just hope that something better will follow this life. What do you expect?

Paul asks us to discern the pouring out of Divine Love in the improbability of the Christian message. Jesus ministry shatters all of our expectations, turns our sense of rights and privileges, of justice and of order on its head. The last shall be first, He tells us. Die for your fellows. Give it all away. Embrace your pain. Even death is shattered in His resurrection. To believe what Christ asks us to believe is to go against the logic of this world. To take a daring leap in loving holy foolishness.

Switchfoot, a rock band of Christian surfers, sings of “standing on the edge of everything I’ve never been before.” What are you standing on the edge of? And will you know when to leap?

Prayer: Holy Spirit, you pour out your gifts whether we want them or not. You open the door to growth and to change, to a relationship with all that is God through the foolishness of the Cross. Remind us as we celebrate Christ’s earthly ministry that not everything is as it appears. That sometimes it is the right time to fall into Divine Love. Amen.

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Ashes and Crosses

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Note: After a couple of posts filled with complaint, I thought it might be nice to look at the God-ness of life. Here is a Lenten sermon filled with hope. It was delivered last Spring at MIT. The scripture reading was Mark 8:31-38.

We started this season with ashes on our foreheads. You come from dust, you’re going to dust. Get over it. It seems pretty harsh.

In the gospel, Jesus is pretty harsh. You want to follow me? Then be prepared to be called names, to be challenged and deceived, to be tortured and killed in the most brutal and ritually unclean manner. Pick up your cross. Notice that the gospel does not relate that Jesus says find a cross, find your cross. He doesn’t say pick up my cross. He says pick up your cross. You don’t need to find it. It’s already there. Welcome to the world, baby!

It would be easy to read this and think of that catch-phrase of this pessimistic age, Life sucks and then you die.

Then to make things worse, your supposed to do something once you’ve picked up your cross. You’re supposed to follow. Where are we going? Why would I choose this life, this cross carrying narrow way?

In our culture one of the stock characters is the used car salesman. If you’ve ever been on a used car lot, you know that every car was driven by a little old lady who only took it to church on Sunday. It’s like new! Imagine what would happen if the car salesman came up to you and said “This thing was totaled a month ago! Look what a great job we did making it look new! It even runs, but who know what damage was really done. It might last for years, it might die next week. Are you willing to gamble on this baby with me?”

So we could look at the gospel and say, ‘Well, at least Jesus is telling us the truth.” We could.

But then we would be forgetting the context of this passage. Jesus has finally, after three years of preaching, revealed to his followers that he is the Messiah. He is the Anointed One who has come to save Israel. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Salvation didn’t take the form Israel expected. The warrior-king who would re-establish a strong and united nation free from foreign domination and centered on a life of worship at the Temple didn’t appear. The Romans were not driven out of Palestine. Samaria was not returned to the fold. Those damned Greeks with their philosophical quibbling were not driven out of the land. It is as if God were saying, read the fine print. I made a contract with you that said I would deliver you my way. And my way is not your way. Deal with it.

You’re ashes. Embrace your pain. Deal with it. My way or the highway. It seems pretty rough.

Except there is that promise. I WILL deliver you. I will save you from your fear, your despair, your pain. I will change you and your world. I will connect you to something bigger, something amazing. I will include you in my life, in the house of my Father. I will fill you with the Holy Spirit. Yes, go out there and change the world. Pick up your cross. Struggle and make justice. But rest in my promise. Abraham did. I’m not going to coddle you. I’m not going to tell you things will be easy and fun all the time. We are by our nature broken, but we have a goal. If we were perfect, where would we go? If we didn’t need to reconcile the disjunct that is the human condition, what would we do? Every day I am asked to bring that part of me that would soar, that would dive into life, that longs to love and to sing into relation with the part of me that is scared, that is greedy, and resents, that is ashes. And I find joy in THIS work because I believe in God’s promise. I live with a cross and a promise.

Look at Abraham and Sarah. Pack up and move. Trust me. I’ll give you a child. Trust me. Bind Isaac and be prepared to kill him for me. Trust me. I promise you that even though you don’t understand what I’m doing, I’ll make it all good. Look at Moses. Go back, I’ll help you free a nation of slaves. Don’t worry about the details, I know how to send plagues. Simon and Andrew… I’ll make you fishers of people. What does that mean? I’ll give you on-the-job training, you’ll figure it out. Take the leap. Pick up your cross and let’s go to where you know not doing what you can not guess.

And along the way there was joy. Isaac, the boy loved by his parents, a gift from God. Celebrations, liberations. A road through the desert and manna from heaven. A messiah. God-with-us. And we know that the promise is fulfilled. Abraham’s children include all who accept Christ and are baptized into one holy Church. I am a child of Abraham. You are a child of Abraham. We are loved. Dare I suggest that life in Christ can be joyous despite the crosses we carry? Yes! You must be this tall to ride this ride… you must be tall enough to say I AM, I WILL. And what a rollercoaster it is. Every day we are surrounded by five million miracles. The God who gives us life and who loves us beats in every heart, breathes in every wind, buds with every tree. The amazing miraculous wacky world of God is a world of wonder. We should balance our cross carrying with dancing and joy. It’s funny how we can take pride in our pain. I suffer better than you do. My people have suffered more than your people. I have virtue in my self-denial. Or more to the point, my Lenten discipline involves real suffering. Mechtild of Magdeburg tells us that, “Those who would storm the heavenly heights by fierceness and ascetic practices deceive themselves badly. Such people carry grim hearts within themselves; they lack true humility which alone leads the soul to God.”

Humility. God made a promise. I choose to trust in God. I am ashes. I have a cross. But I am a child of God. I am an amazing miracle of love. There will be a cross for me. But there will also be an empty tomb, a new life… an eternity of love. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Many Hopkins gave one of his poems a rather long title. It is called “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.” The poem, and this sermon, conclude with these words about mankind:

Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

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A Super Sunday?

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Back in the good old days… things weren’t always so good. There were cheats and hooligans and dirty play and bad owners. The Oakland Raiders of the 70’s, now there was one repulsive organization! So maybe it just feels like too much at once. Can anyone in the NBA stay out of legal trouble? How many NFL players does it take to commit a felony? The election of a narcotics felon to the Football Hall of Fame is shameful, but will baseball have the guts to stand up to the Bonds supporters when the time comes? It has always been about money, I won’t pretend that any level of sport is left un-sullied by filthy lucre, from the NFL junior league called the NCAA to the kid’s league future stars.

And then there is Italy, the other “football”… an entire league shut down by rampant fan violence, this time not just tied to team loyalty, but to team association with partisan politics and regional rivalries. What’s a fan to do? Criminals on the field and off, agents and players and owners and fans…

I could just stick to being a fan of cricket from afar (I actually played with a local club when I spent some time in the UK). Not enough people care about cricket anymore to create a mob. But with the collapse of England in the Ashes, even cricket has lost the magic.

Does Jesus really care if my grotesquely over-paid hometown athlete beats your grotesquely over-paid hometown athlete? Do those who pray to God for a divinely granted victory cheapen our faith? What is a Christian to do when we are so entangled in this system of sin? Sit back and laugh at the SuperBowl ads?

I don’t have an answer. But with recent events in professional sports, I am moved to pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire us, that we will be moved to re-claim the beauty and integrity that is the athletic celebration of God’s gift to us, these fragile bodies, here but for a moment…

Maybe a day will come when Super Sunday is about our Savior, and not about “our” team.

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A Reflection on the Cleansing of the Temple

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The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22

I can almost see the dinner table conversation. “Honey, did you pick up the unblemished lamb today?” The response, “I’ve been really busy this week. I had an all-day meeting at the Eastern Gate. I do not, I repeat do not, have time to go out to the countryside looking for a lamb. I’ll just pick one up at the stalls on the way into the Temple.” The exasperated partner sighs. “Yes, but all of the good lambs will be taken.”

We live in what some like to call a consumer-driven economy. Retail is slick, a giant machine with its cogs greased by easy credit. The convenience is incredible. We can even make impulse purchases online, from the comfort of our own homes. WWW.UNBLEMISHED-LAMBS.COM. And it is easy for us to get caught in the trap.

In the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus, the quiet and usually patient man portrayed in the Gospels, goes off. He discerns that the “businesses” of the Temple are not about doing God’s work. Do we practice this discernment when we shop? Do we ask what happened “up” the manufacturing process? How many rivers were polluted? Humans enslaved, murdered? What oppressive regimes might we be supporting? Are the conveniences we enjoy and the material benefits we accrue worth the costs to our souls?

Being a Christian does not mean being perfect. It means being in this world but not of it. Let us start by examining our relationship with retail.

Prayer: God, we are lured by what is easy, convenient, comfortable. But Jesus makes clear to us that the road is not always easy, that justice and love can often only be found down the rocky and hard roads. Help us to walk that hard road, bringing your challenge with us as we enter the market of temptation. Amen.

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A prayer

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God,

We are a people on the edge,
Always called
Always hesitant
Your call is to action,
Do this
Teach all nations
Love one another
And still we cling
To the familiar
To the easy
To the material.
We also stand on a temporal edge
Called always to look forward
We briefly glance backwards
Remembering the paths we’ve taken
Recognizing the things we’ve achieved
Standing on the edge of tomorrow
On the edge of a new life
A new world
We stand.

God we ask for three blessings:
One- that you never stop calling, never stop believing, that you never give up on us,
Two- that you fill our hearts with restlessness, with a hunger for righteousness, justice, and love,
Three- that you surround us with companions that also burn for you.

We are a people on the edge,
One last prayer on our lips,
One last gesture,
One glance back,
Before diving into your tomorrow.

Amen.

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A theological starting point

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The blow that brought the Enlightenment to its knees was certainly the one delivered by a patent clerk with his theory of relativity. Equally important in bringing down the hubristic enterprise, though less well known, was the contribution of Kurt Gödel. His incompleteness theorem undermined the efforts of his generation’s greatest mathematicians, who were determined to reduce all of mathematics to a handful of axioms that must be taken on faith, though in the positivist tradition, none of the thinkers involved would use such a word as faith.

Gödel’s proof states that you cannot prove the system of mathematics from within that system, a move every bit as destabilizing as Einstein’s relativity. It should come as no surprise then that both men had faith in the divine, though neither could be classified as religious.

This may seem like a strange starting point for a theology. How can you move from math and physics to God? I would ask, how can you not? I hope the similarities between Gödel’s thought and my theology will unfold as I work through some of my theology here.

I begin with an apophatic theology, that is a belief that God is unknowable. The very statement that God is unknowable is an example of the problem. The moment I make it, I have claimed to know something about God, a bind known as aporia. In any case, that is my axiom. For God to be God as humans have conceived, God must be beyond human ability to conceive. Any theology that points to God must begin by acknowledging its limitations.

The starting point for theology is the human enterprise of reacting to and theorizing the divine. The theologians task is like that of the artist. A work of art is not a thing in itself, but is a pointer to something just beyond, some transcendent other. Theology never describes the divine, theology simply points to the divine, which can never be contained or described adequately.

Some would argue that we can know the divine through revelation. But who gets to decide what revelations count? Moses and Jesus are in, but others, from cult-leaders to founders of world religions, are out? Don’t get me wrong, I am a Christian, though I do recognize the “scandal of particularity” when one begins to ask how a loving God can love one ancient tribe more than all the others. But let’s face it, even the Christian tradition, with its notion that the Holy Spirit acts to insure the integrity of Scripture and the Church, is filled with a history of schism and uncertain texts. I believe in the Holy Spirit, just not as Divine Copy-editor and Cop.

But back to the task of theology: one measure of a theology’s authenticity might be that it serves as a pointer, and that it acknowledges its inability to contain the divine.

The other trait I seek in a theology is that it un-makes itself. I do not yet have the words to clarify this, but I do have an image. It is the double helix of our DNA. We think of it as stable, but in truth it is dynamic. Segments unzip, build copies and proteins, reform, sometimes changing in the process. This dynamism that is so basic to life is, I believe, as crucial in a theology. In a theology this might manifest as a theology that is elegant and well-formed, but contains within it a paradox that, from the human perspective, destabilizes the entire structure.

Enough rambling. Not every idea that makes it to this blog will be well-formed. My own theology is unmade and remade every time I study Scripture, pray, participate in the Sacraments of the Church. And I have not determined how we prevent false and dangerous doctrines from developing if theology is always dynamic, always inadequate. The image of faith/theology as DNA would suggest that some mutations are advantageous and survive, while others die out. This would mean that any robust faith contains the divine. That is a claim I cannot make.

Have a blessed Sunday!

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A morning worship from December 06

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Call to Worship

“In God’s hands, cleanness is not fragile, but dirt vanishes at the touch of a holy God. Our God is holy and our God is everywhere. No matter what we suffer, no matter what mud puddles we have splashed in, whatever defilement we have embraced, God has run out ahead to greet us: ‘I can, I will, I have already made you clean.’”
-Anglican Theologian The Rev. Dr. Marilyn McCord Adams

Opening Prayer

God,
We have rights, or so we claim,
The right to be angry and hurt,
The right to decide what is just and unjust.
And then you happen,
Again and again.
Open us as we read, reflect and pray on your word
That we might welcome the radical love
That is Jesus
Again and again.
Amen.

Responsive Reading

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;

who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the LORD;

who stand by their oath even to their hurt;

who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

-Psalm 15

Scripture- 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!”
-from the NRSV copyright The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Reflection

You might think this an improbable text for a progressive protestant to preach on the Feast of Saint Nicholas during the season of Advent. And you’d be right. I stumbled upon this text a couple of weeks ago quite by accident. You see, the Rev. Mary L. was preaching on Luke 15, and my eyes aren’t what they used to be, so I missed the one and turned to Luke 5. And as so often happens when a text finds me, I realized I had missed something, something important and alive, and it made me think about Saint E’s. So here goes: You are a sinner. I said it and I’m not taking it back. And guess what, so am I.
Peter is 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 chaplain 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 Spiritual Care team that is Jesus teaching, preaching and healing ministry. They are spiritual care interns learning from the greatest teacher ever, no disrespect intended to our fine leadership here at Saint E’s. 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 men.” That text we all know. But how many of us remembered what Peter said first? “Dude! go away, I am a sinner.”
Today, a chaplain will show up on your floor. A chaplain will show up in your room. And 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 chaplain is a sinner too. And that chaplain 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 chaplain back out the door. You might ignore the chaplain next to you in the staff room. 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 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 all of this is because 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 priest who has lost his way, who has become a drunkard, who is running away. When asked from whom he is running, his answer is simple: God. When asked what he thinks God is going to do to him, he only needs four words: God will love me. And you know what: He’s right. Today be open to the presence of God in one another, even in our mistakes and imperfection. 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.

Prayers of the People

God, we forget about repentance. We prefer happy clappy, and this season especially we prefer to make a joyful noise. We claim that we make this noise for you, but maybe we make it to drown out our own feelings in the face of the Immensity of You, our God. We tell ourselves there will be time later, we’ve designed a season for it, we call it Lent. But this Advent we must also remember that there is a reason for the incarnation, a reason for Jesus. We have fallen, we will fall again. But Jesus calls us again and again. ‘I love you. I forgive you. Get up, take up your matt and walk. Your sins our forgiven.’ And so you have instructed us, ‘Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.’ We pray this morning that we can and will forgive one another the imperfections of our humanity, that we will bring the presence of Christ into our offices and labs, our wards and our rooms, that cleanness will be contagious, that forgiveness will be an epidemic. And so we pray together, as one community of love:

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 saints on this feast day of Saint Nicholas,
May they walk with us in all that we do.
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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