What comes next?

Preached on 18 March 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

“The hour has come,” Jesus says.  Time and again, throughout John’s gospel, it has been said, “because the hour had not yet come.”  And now, it’s here.  Jesus has just returned to Jerusalem and he’s setting the stage, preparing the disciples for what is to come; his Passion and resurrection.

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, the last one before Holy Week begins next week.  The hour has come for us to prepare for what is to come; to set the stage in our hearts and souls.  I suggest we begin by reflecting on our experience of Lent this year.

We began on Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, the day of the Parkland shooting.  You heard an invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

The first question is, how did you decide to observe Lent and how is it going??  And the second is, how did you experience Lent?

A lot has happened since then.  There have been marches and demonstrations.  There have been threats and saber-rattling.  There have been snow days and sunny, spring-like days.  And flowers blossoming all around us.  There have been the regular routines of life, going to work, kissing the kids and helping with homework, doing laundry, time with family and friends, sharing meals, washing dishes.

In all of that, where have you found God?  As you think back, can you remember details?  Where were you?  Who were you with?  Did you see Christ in a person? Or in an interaction?  Maybe it was a moment of true inner peace in the middle of all the noise or uncertainty of life.

Were there any surprises?  What did you discover about God or yourself?

One of the frustrating things is that we can only see what God chooses to reveal.  We can’t make God reveal anything.  The most we can do is spend the time and attention to notice and to be open to the possibility that what we’re experiencing is truly God.

A year ago, last fall, I went on a pilgrimage, walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.  Thirty-some days, 500 miles or so.  When I got home some friends asked if it was what I had hoped’ if I found what I was looking for.  I told them that I didn’t go with an agenda or expectation other than that God would be there.  Pilgrimage is about seeking God in the unexpected or at least in someplace new to us.

Transition is a bit like a pilgrimage.  It’s an opportunity to try something different; to seek Christ in new and possibly unexpected people and experiences.  It’s listening for God’s voice in possibly new ways.  How is God already at work here?
And what work is God calling us to do next?
This is holy time.  This is holy work.

The Greeks came to Philip and asked, “We wish to see Jesus.”  That could be us.  Isn’t that why we’re here?  We wish to see Jesus, we want to know God, not just know about God.  And we cherish the company of others along the way who also wish to see Jesus.

So, as you reflect on your experience of Lent and how you have found God, expand that reflection to Ascension.  Does your experience here, as a part of this community, help you see and hear Jesus?  Help you know God?  Does our worship play a part in that?

All of this reflection is good preparation for prayerfully responding to the CAT questions.
This is an important time in the life of the parish.
You are discerning your identity, who you are as a community of faith.  And just as important, you are discerning how God is calling you to serve the people of God.  It’s important work, it’s work you must do together.

Then it’s up to the profile committee to gather it all up, find a way to articulate who you are so they can present it for priests to use in discerning where God may be calling them to serve.  Jesus is already setting the stage for what’s next in the life of this parish.

In our gospel, this morning, Jesus sets the stage for what will come next in his life:  The Passion – his arrest and crucifixion; his suffering and dying.  He talks about a grain of wheat “dying” when it is planted in the ground so that it can bear fruit.

I invite you to use this coming week of reflecting on your experience of Christ this Lent to prepare your hearts and your spirit for Holy Week, to set the stage for the experience of the whole week.

We begin with the triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when we will also hear the Passion story as told by Mark.

Then on Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper with the disciples when Jesus institutes the sacrament of the bread and wine as well as the servanthood of discipleship as we wash one another’s feet.  We feel the desolation of the arrest of Jesus as we strip the altar and depart in silence, waiting for the liturgy to continue on Friday.

Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion.  An empty sanctuary, an empty aumbry; the light is out.  This time we hear the Passion story as told by John and we wait.  We wait and pray at the cross.

Finally, on Saturday, we reach the highlight of the year and the culmination of the liturgy, one liturgy that spans three days:

We light the New Fire amongst the tombs of those we love who have gone before; those we hope to see again in the resurrection.  And then we gather to hear the stories, the stories of God and our ancestors, the stories of Salvation.  We renew our Covenant with God in the Waters of Baptism and celebrate with bells and light and song.  And finally, at last, we feast on the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the first Eucharist of Easter. Fire and Water; Darkness and Light;
Story, Song, and Sacrament; Flowers and Bells;
It is the Passover of our Lord.

The hour has come.  It’s time to get ready.

Swimming upstream with Jesus

Preached on 11 March 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

“To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.”

That’s a pretty strong claim I read in an online commentary this week.
Another one put it this way,

“Discipleship demands endless struggle.”

It sounds impossibly demanding, daunting, but I think it’s true.

Here’s the thing, though.  Discipleship isn’t a pass/fail test.  Even when it seems that we’ve been swept far downstream by those currents of the world, we’re never lost to God; we don’t drown.  With God’s help, we can turn back upstream and make a little progress.  If we join together, we can possibly make more progress.  No matter how many times our courage flags, we can turn and begin again.

Maybe I’ve begun where I should have ended.  Let’s back up and take a look at our Scripture readings for today.

In the Old Testament reading, we find the Israelites leaving camp at Mt. Hor.  They are well on their way out of Egypt trying to get to the Promised Land.  They have hit one obstacle or difficulty after another and they’re grumbling.  We hear that God has sent poisonous snakes into the camp and people are dying.  Not really a warm, fuzzy image of God, is it?  No, this God is dangerous and unpredictable.  The people think it must be a punishment for something they’ve done, maybe their complaining.

So, they turn to Moses and ask him to intervene with God, to take the snakes away.  You may have noticed that God doesn’t do anything to the snakes, but God does offer a remedy.  He tells Moses to fashion a pole with a bronze snake on it.  When someone is bitten, they can look at it and be healed.  Notice, nothing is said about sin or sacrifice or punishment.  The bronze snake that Moses lifts up is for healing.

Jesus refers to this story in our Gospel reading.  We come in right in the middle of a private conversation, in fact, in mid-sentence.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the middle of the night with some questions.  He’s getting even more confused and, I daresay, so are we.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Jesus tells him, “as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,” (for healing, remember), “so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Hmmm.  Often, it’s assumed that lifted up is about the crucifixion.  But maybe it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s lifted up on the cross and lifted up from the tomb and lifted up in the ascension – the whole Easter story.  And what might he mean by “believes” and “eternal life?”

Next, we hear what may be the best-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16.  I read from a different translation so that we could hear it with fresh ears.

This verse, unfortunately, is sometimes used like a test of who’s in and who’s out; who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.
Or it’s treated like it’s a one-time event, almost an intellectual exercise: believe in Jesus?  Check.  Ok, glad that’s taken care of.

But, as we continue reading, we see that there’s more to it than that.  Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it or judge it.  To save the world in the world; it’s the process of ending hate, injustice, exploitation, oppression, for a world of justice, compassion, mercy, love and so on.  This is eternal life.

Jesus saves the world through his presence in the world and we are invited into that presence, to join in the salvation of the world.

“Believing in Jesus” is about choosing “light” (justice, love, compassion) and rejecting “darkness” (injustice, hate, oppression).  Lest you think this sounds like the “just say no to drugs” campaign in the 80s, here’s the difference.  We’re not alone.  This is about Jesus’ invitation to be with him in choosing light over darkness.

This brings to mind our baptismal examination and covenant.  In the Examination, we begin with renunciations:  We renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.  We renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  And we renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

And then, we turn to Jesus Christ.  We accept him as our Savior.  We put our whole trust in his grace and love.  And we promise to follow and obey him as our Lord.

This isn’t a one and done thing.  These are choices we make every day, multiple times a day.  It is in our turning to the light in Christ that we are able to turn away from the darkness.

Then in the Covenant, we promise to persevere in resisting evil.  We promise that when we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord.  We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves.  We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and we promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
All this, with God’s help.

This all sounds like what we’ve been talking about.  It’s an ongoing, lifelong process.  Is it easy?  No.  But the promise is life, abundant life with Christ. Starting now.

And so, we’re back where we started.

“To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.”

To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim into the current that carries Christ’s life-giving grace, the current of justice and mercy, of love and compassion, the current of freedom, hope, and love; the current of eternal life.

May we be blessed with such courage.

Holy Fools Meet God

Preached on 4 March 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

“Careful Consideration” by Ann Weems

Certain in-charge church people
expound upon the finer points of doctrine
while the disenfranchised await the verdict.

Meanwhile the holy fools rush in
and touch the outcasts,
creating Good News once again.[i]

Thanks be to God.

I feel like I should just stop here and sit down.
Enough said.

We long for God, to encounter God, to experience the divine.  And then when we do, we try, and fail, to explain the mystery.  And kind of like when explaining a joke the humor is lost, when trying to explain an experience of the divine, the mystery is lost.

At the same time, it is in the telling that we recognize the utter reality of our experience.  We know it to be True despite its seeming foolishness.  That knowledge is affirmed in the expressions of recognition by those who have also experienced the divine – a slight smile, a nod, a light in the eye, or leaning a little closer.
And I’m not talking about a “Road to Damascus” experience.  It’s the small subtle ones as well; those times when we know that we are in the presence of the Holy, when we truly see the Christ in our neighbor.

The Bible is all about human experiences of the divine.  Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai and meets God for 40 days.  There he receives the ten words that we like to call the Ten Commandments that we heard today.

As the Hebrews continue their journey through the desert to the promised land, Moses regularly meets with God in the tent of meeting and the people follow God in the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night. The prophets hear the word of God and proclaim it to the people.

Eventually, Solomon will build a Temple in which people will seek the divine presence and offer sacrifices.  When the Babylonians destroy the Temple and take the people into captivity in Babylon, they find that God is with them, there, too.

Today we hear about Jesus at the rebuilt Temple, driving out those selling the animals the people need for the sacrifices the Law prescribes.  He overturns not only the tables of the moneychangers but he overturns their understanding of Temple.

The temple is the holy place where human life and divine blessing meet.  For John, Jesus, God incarnate, is the Temple, the place where God and humanity meet.  God’s dwelling place is with human beings as a human being.  The Word became flesh and walked among us.

A few chapters later in John’s gospel, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and they discuss “right” worship: Jews worship in the Temple in Jerusalem; Samaritans worship on the mountain.  Jesus says that the time is coming that you will worship neither in Jerusalem nor on the mountain, but true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.

Eventually, we find this temple, the body of Jesus hanging on a cross and finally, risen from the tomb talking with Mary in the garden, eating fish on the beach with his friends.

God shows up in the last place you would look.  God’s power is manifest in the most powerless act God has ever done.  We try to explain it and just sound foolish.

Where does our life intersect with the divine life?

We come here to worship, hoping for an encounter with the divine, not because of the building, but because of what we do here; because of who is here – the people gathered together as the Body of Christ.

Not only do we share the stories of those who have gone before through Scripture, but we also experience the mystery of God through symbols and actions in our liturgies.  So, at risk of sounding foolish, I’ll say a little about some of the things we do and why.
All of our symbols, all of our actions are intended to draw our attention to God, to draw our hearts and minds and our very lives to God to be transformed by God so that we may go back out into the world to be Christ to our neighbor even as we serve Christ in our neighbor.

As we enter the church, one of the first symbols we find is the font, where we are reminded of our baptism into the family of God and the promises made in our Baptismal Covenant.  In our processions, we often follow a cross, a reminder that it is Christ who leads us, always.

We believe Christ is truly present in the proclamation of the Gospel and so we turn and face the person proclaiming it.  We believe that Christ is present in the Body gathered, and so we greet one another in the name of Christ at the peace.  The Christ in me responds to the Christ in you.  It is also a time to be reconciled with anyone with whom we are at odds.

And then we have the Liturgy of the Table, Holy Communion, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.  The Table is set with a fair linen and the “dishes,” the chalice and paten, are covered with a veil, symbolic of the tent of meeting where Moses would go to meet God face-to-face.  This is where we will meet God in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion.

We use gestures and actions of reverence, thanksgiving, blessing, and of calling upon the Holy Spirit.  We glimpse with awe and wonder the majesty and mystery that is God.  Then we eat taking into our human bodies the real food and real presence of Christ, to be nourished physically and spiritually so that we may go out into the world, holy fools rushing in,
to touch the outcasts, free the captives,
feed the hungry, raise the dead;
to create Good News once more.

[i] Weems, Ann. Kneeling in Jerusalem: Poetry for Lent and Easter. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 36.

God of promises

Preached on 25 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mark certainly has a way of making discipleship unappealing, doesn’t he?  I mean, really, who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus based on what we heard today?  And at the end of this gospel, the disciples all run away; they abandon Jesus – even the women at the empty tomb run away in fear.

So, here we are, we’ve jumped ahead in the gospel from where we were last week.  Jesus and the disciples have left Galilee and headed north, up in the border-lands in Caesarea-Philippi.  Just a few verses earlier, when Jesus asks them, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ,” and Jesus orders them to keep quiet about it.

That’s where we come into the story today.  It’s Jesus’ first prophecy of the Passion.  In contrast to the secrecy up until this point, Jesus is openly teaching the disciples just what it will mean to be the Messiah, the Christ.  He will be betrayed and suffer, killed and raised from the dead.

Peter again, protests, but Jesus doubles down.  It is necessary for this to happen, he insists.  But not only him, he turns to the crowd and extends this call to them as well; what it will mean to follow him.  You must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.  If you try to save your life, you will lose it but if you lose your life for the sake of the gospel you will save it.

What does that even mean?  Deny yourself.  Take up your cross.  Lose your life for the sake of the gospel?

I don’t have a definitive answer but we can explore a little.  I do want to point out that the phrase, “for the sake of the gospel” is key.  This isn’t about the general pain and suffering that’s part of life.  It’s not the arthritis or the cancer or the struggle with addiction and certainly not an abusive spouse.  None of those is “your cross” that God gives you to bear.  Rather, Jesus is acknowledging that there is serious risk in following him; in doing what he does.

When Mark talks about the gospel, he’s talking about the kingdom of God: that it is near us, among us, it is within us.  The kingdom of God is not about geography, of course, nor is it about power or control.  It’s about relationship.  Perhaps better metaphors or translations might be commonwealth of God, as the New Zealand Prayer Book says, or community or family of God.

This is not about a personal, political agenda, although it may well take place in the arena of politics; rather it is about God’s agenda, moving toward a community of compassion, justice, and mercy; acting from a position of love, not fear or anger.  It’s speaking openly, challenging the powers of the world, questioning the systems that are taken for granted.  It’s welcoming, feeding, healing, restoring, forgiving those whom the world may see as undeserving, if it sees them at all.  That is what Jesus does.

God’s desire is for the wholeness of every human being, it’s about the holiness of every person.

What would that look like in our lives?

One commentary put it this way, “Christian faith is not a lifestyle choice.  It is a vocation of struggle.  In giving ourselves to others, we find ourselves.”

Lent is a good time to do this kind of reflection, discerning God’s desire and how we fit into the work of God.  This Lent, I am reading the poetry of Ann Weems in her book, Kneeling in Jerusalem.  This one seems particularly appropriate it’s titled
“A Listening.”[1]
A Listening by Ann Weems

The self-examination and repentance of Lent is not strictly an individual undertaking, it is also communal.  In our weekly confession, we use the plural pronouns, “we confess that we have sinned against you… by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  It’s communal – we as a community of faith; we as a society; we as a people of privilege or wealth or power.
We confess not only our actions but our failure to act.

Miroslav Volf has pointed out, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for problems you’re unwilling to solve.”  Of what shall we repent?
How shall we follow Jesus?

While Mark’s words are disconcerting to say the least, we can look to our Old Testament readings for hope and assurance.  This year, during Lent, we hear a series of lessons about God’s covenants.  Last week we heard the story of God’s covenant with Noah’s family and all of his descendants and all flesh, after the flood.  The covenant whose sign is the rainbow about which God says, “When I see the bow in the sky, I will remember the everlasting covenant between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

This week we hear about God’s covenant with Abraham, the promise of children and land.  The promise to be his God.  It is the third time that God comes to Abraham about this covenant.  Abraham already has a son through Hagar.  But this time, God makes sure Abraham knows that the covenant is also with Sarah.  God will bless her and she will give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

We follow Jesus for the sake of the gospel.  We take this risk because ours is a God of promises, a God of covenants.  Again, a poem by Ann Weems.  This one’s called, “Walking Rainbows.[2]

Walking Rainbows, by Ann Weems


Perhaps this is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus; to be a walking rainbow, bringing the  hope of good news to a broken and suffering world.

[1] Weems, Ann. Kneeling in Jerusalem: Poetry for Lent and Easter. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 36.

[2] Weems, page 32.