Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent Re-Post

Advent is here! And followers of my blog may already be aware of the fact that I have a fun habit of having all kinds of crazy things happen to me during the Advent season. I am, apparently, a kind of magnet for these sorts of things.

Well, so far this Advent has yet to present anything too crazy... But, there are still 3 weeks to go. In the meantime, I thought I would provide you all with links to my favorite Advent-ures from years gone by: And That's When I Set Myself On Fire (Part 1) & And That's When I Set Myself On Fire (Part 2).

Enjoy, my friends!!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God, the Finder (a sermon)

The following was preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Washingtonville, NY on Sunday, September 12, 2010. The primary scripture lesson was Luke 15:1-10.

When we meet up with Jesus in our Gospel lesson this morning, he has gathered quite the variety of people around him. Townspeople, ordinary folks, religious leaders, Pharisees and scribes, and sinners and tax collectors. Of course, we're used to seeing Jesus with that latter bunch of folks - the sinners and tax collectors. But, the Pharisees and scribes are apparently a little taken aback by the company that Jesus keeps. And so we hear the Pharisees and scribes "grumbling". (They just never seem to be in a good mood, do they?)

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" The religious leaders are disgusted. And, they are full of themselves... You can hear the disdain and contempt just dripping from every word. "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" These "sinners" aren't worth it, they think. These "creatures" are hopeless. Why would anyone worth anything - which Jesus claims to be, saying that he is the very Son of God - why would he waste his time with those kinds of people?

Of course, Jesus hears what they have to say. Most likely, everyone hears what they have to say. Rather like hot-headed people threatening to burn religious texts... or like loud-mouthed, hateful protesters at a military funeral... Everyone hears what the Pharisees and scribes have to say - they make sure of that. And Jesus responds. Not by chastising them. Not by yelling or reprimanding or turning over tables. Jesus responds by telling a story - a parable. He tells 3 parables, actually - though our scripture lesson today only includes 2 of the 3.

Jesus asks all of the people who are present: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?...And what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?..."

Who among us is like that? Which one of us would do these things? Jesus asks these questions in such a way that they seem to beg us to respond "Well duh...we would," as if it is obvious that all of us would do those things without a thought. But, of course, it really isn't that obvious - it really isn't that way at all! Most likely, if we are honest with ourselves, none of us would do those things. Instead, we would cut our losses. We'd be crazy to risk the safety of 99 sheep - leaving them in the wilderness - to search for just one that is lost! It would be foolish to lose an entire day's work - or longer - to search for one list coin, when there are 9 other coins safely tucked away in our wallet already.

But Jesus, the asker of the questions and the teller of the stories, says: "Just what makes you think that these stories are about you? These aren't stories about how you behave - these are about how God behaves!"

If the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling before Jesus told these stories, they must have been fuming afterward. You see, the Pharisees believed that they had God all figured out. God was safe. God was predictable. God looked after the righteous and God damned the unrighteous. Everything was black and white. God had created us, given us rules to follow, and was now out there in the great beyond, waiting for us to obey. And only then - if we obeyed - would God welcome us. Anyone who dared to step off the path that they Pharisees knew and guarded so carefully were cursed. That was how God worked, they thought. And so, religion was all about separating the good from the bad. It was all about being righteous and staying as far away as possible from anything thought to be sinful, lest the righteous be "tainted" in any way...

Does anyone get the feeling that the Pharisees would have gotten along with Fred Phelps and Terry Jones?

Jesus tells a very different story. He paints a very different picture of God. Jesus describes God as a devoted, seeking shepherd. Jesus describes God as a persistent, searching woman. As Jesus describes, God is not some distant, hands-off rule-maker or taskmaster. God is closer than we think. God is relentlessly pursuing us! God values the "lost" just as much (and perhaps, even more so) as the not-so-lost. So, there is never even a question of God's simply cutting any losses and just shrugging off the lost - that sort of behaviour isn't even on God's radar. Regardless of any risks, God searches for us until we are found. It isn't a matter of "if" - it is always a "when".

Now, it is common to hear people say that they are "looking for something" when they come to church. Likely, we have all said it or thought it at some point ourselves. And, I suppose that the lost sheep in the parable was "looking for something", too. Yes, we like to think that we are here because we are looking for something - that we're searching for answers - that we're looking for God. And that's fine. There isn't really anything all that wrong with our thinking that. But, our scriptures describes something else. Time and time again, our scriptures describe sheep - people just like you and me. But we don't read about how these sheep go searching for and find a shepherd. We don't read about coins who search for and find an owner. No! We read and learn about a shepherd who searches non-stop for the sheep until they are found. We read and learn about a woman who turns the whole house upside-down for one coin until it is found.

Jesus tells these parables while he is sitting with sinners, and the Pharisees grumble about it. And, in effect, Jesus demonstrates with his actions - by his dining with the outcasts - the same amazing grace and love that God shows through the actions of the seeking shepherd and the searching woman. Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes - to all those who want to put up walls and make distinctions between "us" and "them" - that he is exactly where he needs to be. Jesus says to those who grumble about his actions, "I came to seek and save the lost...why are you here?"

Father Robert Capon - an Episcopalian priest and scholar - said this of these parables in Luke's gospel: "The point is that what these two parables put together says is that what governs God's behavior to us is not our sins. It's not our problems. It's his need to find us. These parables go by the need of the finder to find, not about the need of the lost to be found... the universe is driven by the need of the finder to find all of us in our lostness."

God, the Finder, needs to find us - all of us. Now that is good news! No matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we've done, no matter what we'll do, no matter what kind of "lostness" we are wrapped up in, and no matter whether we even realize that we're lost or not - God the Finder is searching non-stop for each of us. And God won't stop searching for us until we are found. And, when we get lost again... God will search again...

And every time we are found...scriptures tell us that the heavens will rejoice! There's a party like we can't even imagine every time we are found...

May God, the Almighty and Eternal Finder, find each of us - again and again. And may we all take a lesson from Christ, learning to dine in peace with our fellow "lost", resting in the knowledge that God will never give up on searching for each and every one of us...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Taking It All to Heart...

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to read the news or check out online opinion articles from certain affinity groups that associate themselves with the PCUSA. In my attempts to stay informed about what is going on in the world around me, as well as my commitment to do my best to listen to voices on all sides of the issues that face the church, I find that there are easy days and hard days. Today is NOT one of the easy days. It seems that - with the exception of the news that BP may have finally capped the oil leak in the Gulf - most everything that I have read today has been written to throw daggers at, well, folks like me. It isn't easy to NOT take it all to heart...

First, I read about the latest revision to the Vatican's in-house rules. The revision of these rules came about to address the various "sex scandal" issues that the Roman Catholic Church has struggled with in recent months/years. But, the Vatican - in all its "wisdom" - also made a rather startling addition to their in-house rules regarding the attempted ordination of women. Any attempt to ordain a woman is now considered to be a "grave crime", which happens to have the same set of punishments as those named for sex abuse! A "grave crime"??? Any woman who feels God's call to share the Good News of the Gospel and offer the Sacraments in the name of Christ is guilty of a "grave crime"? The Devil must be having a wonderful laugh with this one, as the Church continues to deny the movement of the Spirit in the name of "holiness"! I was ordained almost 5 years ago as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA, and I must admit that it is difficult not to take this announcement from the Vatican to heart. I was called to this ministry - it isn't a game, it isn't "just a job", and it isn't some sort of political statement. I wonder what this pronouncement by the Vatican is going to do to inter-faith and inter-denominational relations. The church that is directly next door to the church I serve is a Roman Catholic Church. I pray that this latest bit of "goodness" from Rome will not hinder our ability to do ministry together.

Second, I read some of the opinion pieces and letters to the editor that were posted on The Layman Online. The vast majority of them were all commenting on the 219th General Assembly of the PCUSA. Now, I could go into how much I disagree with their assessment of the Assembly's decisions on various issues, but I will save that for another time. What really struck me today was the ever-present assumption that folks like me (people who don't agree with The Layman or PFR and the like) don't study Scripture, don't value the Lordship of Christ, and don't practice prayerful discernment of the will of God. can I put this...? THAT COULDN'T BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!!! (Phew! I feel a little better. Sorry for yelling.)

I DO study the Scriptures. And I don't just read one English translation and then claim full and complete knowledge of what God is speaking in a particular text. I do my utmost to read Scripture in ways that are faithful to our denomination's statements from 1982 & 1983: Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation.

I DO value the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. In fact, I depend on it. Jesus Christ is Head of the Church and Lord of all. Not the Scriptures. Not the Church. Not my understanding of God - and not the understanding of God belonging to anyone else, either... Only Christ.

I DO practice prayerful discernment. I find it fascinating that people on all sides of the many issues that we wrestle with as a Church seem so ready, willing, and able to point at "them" and claim that "they" aren't praying or seeking to discern the will of God. What is the basis for these claims - the fact that we don't agree? Considering that NONE of us have God's vision (to claim that we do is idolatrous and delusional, at best), what on earth makes us think that we can rightly judge who is in conversation with God or not? Personally, I am getting very tired of my fellows in the Church who claim (whenever a decision doesn't go their way) that clearly God's will is being ignored or denied. Could it be that maybe - just maybe - God is trying to tell you something when you don't get your way? I seem to recall there being a prayer that asks God "Thy will be done", not "My will be done"...

I am wrestling with trying to not take these things to heart....

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time for a Facelift (for the blog, that is)

I'm trying out a new look for the blog... What do you think?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Holy Week According to Facebook

I admit that I am a Facebook junkie. So, when I saw this posted on one of my friend's pages, I had to share it. Basically, it is meant to look like Jesus' Facebook page during Holy Week.


Check It Out Here

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I'm Not Keen On Shaving My Head, So..., I'm looking for ideas. Have you ever participated in a fundraiser or some sort of challenge for a club or group where the leaders name their goal and say that "if you reach this goal, then Bob (or whoever drew the short straw) is going to have his head shaved (or something like that)"? Know what I'm talking about? Usually, it is some school group that is challenged to raise several thousand dollars. If they go above and beyond, then the principle or that goofy science teacher that everybody likes finds that they have a date with some hair clippers.

For whatever reason, the only ones that I can recall always involve someone ending up bald.

So, here's what I'm wondering... Besides the tried-and-true "shaving of the head" bit, what other "rewards" could there be? I'm thinking about this, since I would like to issue a challenge to the congregation that I serve - and I would like to add a fun twist to the challenge. But, I don't really think that folks will actually WANT me to shave my head, so I'm guessing that THAT isn't the best "prize" to suggest.

Anyone have any ideas?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

E-Z Answer Squirrel

If only...

We Interrupt This Blog for a Mini-Rant...

I'm just wondering... When did it become okay to lay on your car horn while waiting for the car in front of you to make a turn into traffic?

In order to get to Zumba, I need to make a right-hand turn onto a busy street. It is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill kind of intersection -- you stop at the stop sign, and turn when the way is clear (since the other cars do not have to stop). So, when I made my way to Zumba last night - while the freezing rain came down - I stopped at the stop sign, and waited for the cars to either slide through the intersection or turn before I made my turn.

There were several cars zipping through the intersection. And, of course, there were a bunch of cars that decided to turn that didn't use their turning signals. Mind you, if the cars had actually used their turning signals, letting me know that they were going to turn, then I would have gone ahead and turned. But, since their right-hand turning signals were all broken (clearly that is what the problem was), I waited to turn. I guess I am just the kind of person that doesn't want to pull out in front of people -- especially when the roads are slick.

And... I guess that the guy behind me is the kind of person who wants to pull out in front of people -- even when the roads are slick. Seriously... This guy laid on his car horn when I didn't turn -- all the while, there were about a half-dozen cars skidding down the road in the lane into which I would be turning! Much to his dismay, all of his honking did nothing to make me want to throw caution to the wind, rev up the engine, and pull out into oncoming traffic. I waited until it was safe, and then I made my turn.

When did we all get to be in such a hurry that even waiting for the car in front of you to execute a turn safely became an inconvenience?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Yesterday was Ash Wednesday - the first of the 40 days of Lent. And, like many of my fellow Christians, I attended a special service of worship which included the imposition of ashes. I have participated in Ash Wednesday services since I was very little. Then, I was the one walking up to the pastor... Now I am the pastor. (It is still a bit of a mind-trip, really.)

The church I am now serving held its Ash Wednesday service last night. I called the service "A Service of Confession and Forgiveness". Throughout the service, we read scripture and prayed together, confessing the sins of idolatry, violence, and selfishness. And together, we heard God's clear promise of forgiveness. We heard that Good News. We let the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit burn away those valueless sins, purifying our hearts so that we might have a new space present within us for the new life offered us in Christ. Then the mark of the ashes was offered as a sign of our forgiveness and new life.

Now, I must admit... I typically have every element of these services planned out to the letter. But, I struggled with one element this year: what to say while I was marking my fellow travelers with the ashes. Traditionally, the pastor will refer to God's words to Adam in Genesis 3:19: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I've used those words before - and they are certainly appropriate - but, they just didn't seem to fit the full context of the service that I had put together. For whatever reason, I just couldn't decide what I needed to say... So, I stepped out in faith and decided to let the Spirit give me the words in the moment. Seriously. I walked down, opened the earthenware container that held the ashes, and waited for the people to come forward...all the while, having no idea what I would say as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with palm ashes.

Well, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Spirit showed up just in time. As I marked the first person with ashes, I found myself saying, "The gift of God's grace, given to you." It certainly fit. Each and every one of us...marked with grace.

Anyone who has ever received the mark of ashes -- as well as, and perhaps more especially those who have ever done the marking -- will tell you that the ash just seems to get everywhere. Sure, you may have started with it only on your forehead, but somehow you will find that you get smudges of it on your hand, your bulletin has ashy fingerprints on it, or your glasses get a few flecks of ash on them. And if you are the one who is offering the mark of ashes...well... it is practically impossible not to get smudges of ash all over everything -- your robe, your cheeks, your Bible, the hymnal... I can't explain it. No matter how careful I am each year, I always end up with ashy smudges on things. Sometimes I discover them weeks later, only to wonder how on earth it got smudged with palm ashes.

So, with my index finger coated in ashes, as I tried to avoid getting ash marks all over the hymnal, I thought back to the words that the Spirit had given me as I made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of my fellow Lenten-travelers. "The gift of God's grace, given to you." And I had an epiphany, of sorts... God's grace is a lot like the ashes of Ash Wednesday. God's grace is a free gift. God's grace is pure. And God's grace gets all over everything...and there isn't anything any of us can do about it. Oh, sure... we try to stop God's grace from touching things (or people, or groups) that we don't think it is supposed to touch. But there really isn't anything we can do to stop it -- or, more specifically, there's nothing we can do to stop God from marking whatever or whomever God wants with smudges of grace.

Like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the grace of God ends up all over the place...even the unexpected places... And -- when it comes to God's grace -- that is how it should be. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Lenten Journey Begins...

For several years now, I have opted out of the whole "give something up for Lent" thing. Instead, I have chosen to dare to "take something on for Lent". This year, I am challenging myself to take on 2 things:
  1. Zumba
  2. Actually posting to my blog on a regular basis

Yes, I am beginning Zumba classes. For those who aren't familiar with Zumba, it is a workout program/class that feels more like a Latin dance fiesta than your average exercise program. I've been to one class so far, and I loved it! In many respects, this one is all about the practice of Honoring the Body. As one who was created in the image of God, I need to remember that my body is worthy of care - it is, after all, "a temple of the Holy Spirit within [me]" (1 Corinthians 6:19).

My second challenge...well... I know that I have tried to post on a more regular basis in the past. I've even managed to succeed on occasion! But I really do want to work on this one. I find that I am forever thinking about things to post - things to write about, talk about, ask you all about...but then I don't bother to sit down and actually blog about it! This has got to change. So, considering another Christian practice - Saying Yes and Saying No - I am determined to do better.

You may be curious about this "Saying Yes and Saying No" business. Good. I hope you are curious! Once again, as I have done in the past, I am leading a study on several Christian practices during this season of Lent. I am a huge fan of the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass) - it is a wonderful resource, and it provides for a fantastic book study. In conjunction with the book study, I am also going to be preaching on Christian practices during the entire season of Lent (and likely into the Easter season, as well). I plan to invite you all into the conversation here on my blog, too!

So...that's what I'm looking forward to as I begin this Lenten journey once again. How about you?