Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

Trust can be a difficult thing to build in our relationships. Trust takes time to develop, it requires work and risk. Trust can wither and die before it ever has the chance to develop if just one party in a relationship refuses to work towards building it. Trust is not just a passive virtue, it must be an active discipline.

All of us have people in our lives who are not trustworthy and this just highlights for us the importance and value of trust. An untrustworthy boss can make work miserable. A marriage where trust is gone is a marriage doomed to fail. I think back to when I was a teenager and my parents learned that they couldn’t trust me to leave me home by myself when they went on vacation, but that’s a story for another day.

Our readings this morning point us to Christ as our Great Shepherd. As our Great Shepherd leads us to and through life, we – as His people – are called to learn to follow Him in complete trust. This means allowing our Great Shepherd to care for us and following Him where He leads us.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see a community of believers who are grieving the loss of a woman who had been an example to all around her of Christ’s self-giving love. In the midst of this community’s grief, we are reminded that our Shepherd takes care of His flock as The Holy Spirit raised Tabitha to life through Peter’s prayer.

Psalm 23 may very well be the most famous psalm in the Psalter because it paints for us such a beautiful picture of what it means for Christ to be our Great Shepherd. When King David says that the LORD restores his “soul” in verse 3, the Hebrew word there is better understood as the totality of a person. We might say then that the LORD restores all of who we are; our mind, body, and spirit.

And how does the LORD restore us? By walking beside us through the darkest places of our lives; by protecting us from evil (as David says, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me”); by providing for us, even in the face of despair (“you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies”); and ultimately our Great Shepherd leads us into His presence where we dwell with him eternally.

Now we all know people who have died in the valley of the shadow of death, loved ones lost to cancer, to heart attacks, to car accidents. That is why our reading of Psalm 23 is paired with a reading from Revelation chapter 7. We are reminded that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” as this great multitude who have lost their lives because of persecution are singing praises and songs of victory in the presence of our God. Lest we should question God’s power to bring about salvation for His people, the word “throne” is used seven times in this brief passage. This picture that was revealed to St. John leaves no room for doubt; our God is sovereign and has the power to redeem all of creation.

Finally, in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is confronted by a group of people who refuse to follow Him as their Shepherd. Even though John has recorded six miracles which he calls “signs” – miracles that point to what the Father is at work doing through the son – even though six times Jesus has revealed Himself to the crowds – “I am the bread of life…light of the world…the good shepherd – these people still refuse to believe that Jesus is who He says He is. So what is Christ’s response? “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” We who believe and trust Him enough to follow Him are sheep of the Great Shepherd and we are given the assurance that nothing can snatch us away from Him.

I always like to ask two questions when I read Scripture: How does this work and what does it look like in my life. So I ask, how does trusting in Christ as our Great Shepherd work?

First, trusting Christ as our Great Shepherd means that each one of us is cared for. This is the reason why Psalm 23 is so well known. We read Psalm 23 at funerals, in hospital rooms, alone in our room; any time we feel like we are alone in the world with nothing but our suffering, those words, “The LORD is my shepherd” bring us comfort. Likewise, when we feel like we’re overwhelmed and drowning we find refuge in Christ’s words, “No one can snatch them [My sheep] from Me.”

But we have to be careful here. All this talk about trusting in God to care for us can paint an unreal picture of what it means to follow Christ. Just because we are cared for does not mean that we will be immune to suffering. If we are going to trust Christ as our Great Shepherd, we must be willing to follow Him when He leads us through hardship.

Remember back to our reading from the book of Acts this morning: we know how the story ends so it is easy for us to gloss over the time between Tabitha dying and Peter praying for her to be restored to life. But in the time between the beginning and end of that passage, there were a lot of faithful people who had to deal with the loss of one of their sisters in Christ.

King David wrote that the LORD set for him a table in the presence of his enemies and David was protected when King Saul tried to kill him. But just this month we remembered the anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was arrested and executed – at the hands of his enemies - by the Nazis for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War 2.

That great multitude of people from every tribe and nation we saw around the throne of God singing His praises in the book of Revelation? Those people were all martyred for their faith.

It’s easy for us to stand back and say that everything will work out for the good of those who love God and that we have to learn to trust in Christ. That becomes a lot harder when we realize that it is ME who is being called to follow through the dark valley.

As I have sought to be faithful to my call to follow Christ and to serve Him with my life’s work, He has led me out of the non-denominational church and into the Anglican Communion. Part of what it looked like for me to follow Christ into this calling meant that we had to move out of our house and put it up for sale last November. Now we think we have it sold, but for the last five months Alison and I have been sitting and waiting, and paying the mortgage payment and utility bill each month, and thinking about how slow the housing market is. In the last five months, we’ve only had two nibbles on the house. Do I trust that Christ is leading Alison and me? Yes. Have I been worried at times over these last five months that we might start seminary this fall and still not have the house sold yet? Absolutely! The reason why it is so important for us to learn to trust and to learn to follow Christ is that if we waited until we knew how everything is going to work out, we’d never set the first foot in front of the other!

One last question remains: What does it look like in our lives for us to learn to follow Christ in complete trust? Following Christ in complete trust means seeking a balance between allowing Christ to care for and comfort us while at the same time challenging us to follow Him. Without this balance we either become too comfortable or too challenged.

If we insulate ourselves from suffering and hardships by hearing only Christ’s words of comfort and not His challenging call to follow, we aren’t going to be prepared to rise to the occasion when Christ calls us to serve Him. Don’t get me wrong, I like to be just as comfortable as the next person but it’s like this: sweat pants and house slippers are great for lounging around the house but they’re terrible for going out to do yard work. Let us be prepared to answer the call to follow where Christ leads us!

On the other hand, if we focus too much on the challenge of following Christ to the point where we don’t listen to His words of comfort, we are setting ourselves up for failure. A life of following Christ that is all challenge and no comfort leaves us in a place where we lose our joy. Following Christ becomes just another obligation rather than a journey that leads us into a fullness of life that cannot be found anywhere else.

Let us listen then to the voice of Christ speaking words of comfort and challenge into our lives so that we, as His people, may learn to follow Him in complete trust wherever He may lead us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Prayer for a Sunday when the Heat is too Hot and the Music too Slow

Oh Holy Spirit,
You who raised Eutychus from the dead
After he fell asleep during church,
and fell out the window and died;
Grant me the grace to stay awake through church this morning.
And if this is not Your Holy Will,
Grant that I do not snore too loudly,
Or drool on myself,
Or start to nod off and then jerk awake real suddenly.
Whether I make it through this service awake or asleep,
Remind me that the Redemption You are working right now,
At this moment,
Is more creative and far reaching than can be contained
In this room,
At this moment.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Monday Morning Poem

People usually find the incessant
Barking of a dog or two
Inside their fence
A nuisance, noise pollution.

A rap on the window,
"Shut up out there!"

After listening to those dogs bark
At the same string of squirrels,
     Loose dogs roaming the neighborhood,
           The occasional passerby,
                The mail lady six days a week
                      Between noon and two o'clock,

I hear those dogs barking out
A testimony to the sheer persistence
Of created life
As I hop in the shower
     And head to work on Monday morning.

- 3 October 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Poem for Tuesday Morning

Coffee in the morning,
Whiskey at night.
Life is alright

Friday, September 2, 2011

On Losing My Joy

These last two years have been two of the hardest years of my life. I'm not saying this to complain, only to preface my return to blogging. In the last two years I have transitioned from being single to being married; during the same time period, I have also transitioned from being a student to being a full-time pastor. Either one of these transitions by itself is a lot to get used to, but both together are like smoking a joint after drinking a 12 pack of beer, no matter how much you think you can handle it you will find it hard to keep your feet under you.

Now don't hear me wrong, I love my wife very much and I am not writing this to bemoan being married. Marriage certainly has a way of showing a person just how selfish and self-serving he really is, and then grinding down those rough edges, but there's nothing better than knowing that no matter what happens in the course of the day you can look forward to snuggling your sweetie as the two of you fall asleep together at the end of the day.

However, the transition from private Bible college to full-time pastoral ministry in a small town in Southern Illinois has been a hard one. I have recently, within the last month, come to the realization that in attempting to make this transition I have lost my joy.***

One of the ways I have come to this realization is that I have found that I no longer enjoy most of the things that I used to. In the course of these last two years I have quit running entirely for almost a year (something I dearly love), quit riding and sold my motorcycle (something I dearly loved), quit reading theology (something I dearly loved), and just generally lost all hope for anything good to come of life all together. When I'm not working, I'm either escaping into my Xbox (not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself), eating, watching TV, or sleeping.

I have also found that my temper has gotten shorter and shorter. Now, I inherited my temper honest, and for as far back as I can remember I have let it fly when things have pissed me off. Even when I was little I would break toys if they pissed me off. But my temper has always been directed at inanimate objects. I may punch a wall, sling a pair of channel lock pliers across the yard, or cuss a blue streak at the lawn mower, but I've never directed that temper at other people, let alone people I care about. In these last few months I've found myself losing my temper with my sweet wife (not as far as punching her or throwing her across the yard, just being a grouch at her) and this really bothers me.

I've also swelled up like sequined jump-suit Elvis. The clothes that fit when I moved here don't fit anymore. I've always been up and down with my weight, but when I was 20 I topped out at 230 pounds. That was an eye opener so I started doing weight watchers and running and lost almost 60 pounds in the course of a summer. Now I put some of that weight back on, but I hadn't been up over 200 pounds since then. Until moving down here, that is. Back in January I forced myself on to a scale and saw that I was close to 220 pounds. Not good, dude, not good at all.

I know the symptoms I am describing probably line up well with depression, and given the disproportionate amount of time in the last two years I've spent sitting alone in a quiet empty room, sighing deeply and feeling totally empty, that's probably exactly what it is. What I want to do with these next few blog posts is to take a look at how I got here, and how I am going to go forward, in the hopes that maybe some of you out there in blogoworld might benefit from reading what I'm writing.

***Now here's the good news, after realizing that I have lost my joy, I have been taking steps to get it back. I started walking in the morning and listening to one of my favorite series of books on my iPod back in July, and now I have built back up to running a little over 2 miles a day (hoping to get that closer to 5 come spring). I'm gradually losing weight, getting closer to that 200 pound mark and hoping to get back towards 185 by next year. Most importantly, I am realizing that I am not trapped in this place or in this line of work, and that has been liberating. So all in all things are looking up!

Coming soon...The first step towards losing one's joy: jamming a square peg in a round hole.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N.T. Wright; Gnosticism; Lukewarm Church

So yesterday I discovered iTunes U. iTunes U is a place where all sorts of universities from around the world post lectures and such on all sorts of topics and you can browse and download them as you like. I'm an avid podcast listener and have been for some years now, so this is really exciting! Upon discovering this I promptly downloaded everything I could find by the illustrious Nicholas Tom Wright.

This morning while running and then while at the gym lifting weights, I listened to a lecture given by Dr. Wright at Duke Divinity School titled "Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation to John." I would like to share one thing he said in this lecture:

"Again and again, Revelation draws on the great themes and insights from the Old Testament prophets...because Revelation, like the whole New Testament, sees the Old Testament as a great, complex, multi-faceted narrative which came to its climax in Jesus and is now generated a new narrative which is demonstratively the fulfillment of that ancient story but also in a significantly new mode. Revelation is...the climax of prophecy...The book of Revelation tells the same story the gospels tell, which though we may not normally read the Gospels like this, goes like this...it is the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, Israel's Messiah, conquered the power of evil through His death, and became the Lord of the world. The New Testament is not about how Jesus, on the one hand revealed that He was divine and then died so that we can go to heaven. That's half-way to gnosticism if you aren't careful. They are about how Jesus acted as the embodiment of Israel's God to overthrow the usurping forces of evil and to establish through His death, resurrection, and ascension, God's Kingdom on earth as in heaven."

Amen and Amen.

Now here's my question. I am acutely aware of the fact that the church culture in which I have grown up regularly sees the vast majority of young people who grow up in church promptly leave that church at the age of 18 when they go off to college and then maybe they will come back when they turn 35 and have kids (mostly just to instill some good old morals in their young ones...remember when the gospel used to be good news?). Anyway, building on Wright's statement that the gospel is about Christ embodying Israel's God, and defeating the usurping forces of evil to establish God's Kingdom and that the gospel of Christ coming to "prove" He was God and then die "for our sins" so that we can "go to heaven" when we die is dangerously close to gnosticism, I wonder if the majority of churches, at least in rural middle america, aren't more gnostic than Christian? And if that's the case, is it any wonder so many close their doors each week? Maybe gnosticism was a hot thing 50 years ago when most of the people in church now were growing up, but somewhere along the way it has lost steam. Maybe a big part of the work we need to do as Kingdom citizens in the immediate future is converting "christians" from gnosticism to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Friday, April 1, 2011

An Ode to Beans and Rice

I eat beans and rice almost every day of the year. Some days I eat beans and rice twice a day. I have even been known to eat beans and rice for breakfast. Beans (1 part pinto, 1 part black) and rice (brown, never white) is delicious. You can dress it up with cheese, barbeque sauce, jalepenos, onions, you can wrap it in a tortilla and toast it on the cast iron skillet, you can eat it on a bed of fritos or tortilla chips. I got a 10 pound sack of black beans for Christmas and it was gone by february. My dad orders 50 pound sacks of pinto beans and we split them up amongst the family. That's how I roll.

So in honor of how much I love beans and rice (fresh pepper season is coming! I've got 4 dozen little starts sitting next to a window in the sun right now), I wrote this poem:

I love beans and rice,
I love them very much.
I love beans and rice,
I could eat them for dinner and lunch.

Thank you, thank you very much