Christianity isn’t About Passing Tests and Sermons on Obedience Shouldn’t Be Obeyed, By and Large

importance-of-feedback-scoreThis Sunday’s text (find them here) are tempting me to skip the sermon.

It’s not that they’re bad texts; I really dig them.  It’s just that, when you dig into them it’s easy to draw the simple conclusion that Jesus knows the right answers to the troubles that come his way, and therefore he’s able to pass the tests the devil throws at him.

Oh, if you haven’t read the text yet, none of this will make sense.  Go read it.

Done?  Cool. Onward.

So much of religion seems geared toward passing spiritual tests and playing games where we count sins, point to people claiming they’re in or out, as sinners or saved.  I’ve heard Christians label people as “backsliders,” saying they’re falling away from God.  I’ve heard Christians fight over who is more obedient to God, as if it’s all a big test that we have to pass, and some of us have more points than others.  I heard a sermon once on “obedience” that made me want to throw the pastor out the window, knowing full well that would not be obedient.  If God is scoring on obedience, I’m in trouble.  And so was that pastor because he totally took Jesus and replaced Jesus with “rules” in the “follow this” department.

Which I think the church does all the time.  All. The. Time.  Rules and right answers and even the scriptures themselves take the place of Jesus in a lot of Christianity.

Obedience in the scriptures isn’t like our rule-following, game-playing obedience today.  It was literally “walking in the footsteps” of your teacher.  It was being them, not doing what they said. So much of Christian talk about obedience is playing the game where you put in place your sin-management system and compare it to other people’s lives and see what score you get.

Jesus didn’t play such games.  We shouldn’t play such games.  And Lent is a time when we practice not playing games.  In this Sunday’s reading Jesus doesn’t play the accuser’s games.  He doesn’t pass the test through obediently giving the right answer. He just refuses to take the test altogether.

Religion is not primarily about obedience, but about connection.  It’s about refusing to play the world’s games.  It’s actually about backsliding from rule-following and into something more Divine.  Like loving relationship.  Christians should be backsliders in this way!

I’ll give you the following definition of religion about twenty times over the next twenty years if you’re in my parish, but it’s because I find it so life-giving.  The beautifully bald New Mexican monastic Father Richard Rohr says it this way: Religion, as a root word, is about re-connection.  “Re” meaning “again,” and “ligio” –it’s where we get the word “ligament.”  It’s about connecting together.  Religion reconnects humanity and God, like a ligament connects the body together.

And so we don’t do this faith thing by having the right answers or by passing the tests of life with flying colors, but by fostering our connection to God through intentional practices.  And history, the ancient church, tells us that one of the ways we foster this connection is through Lent and intentional spiritual practices: intentional eating (or not-eating), intentional giving, intentional prayer, intentional worship.

Sometimes we turn this practice into simple obedience, and that’s when we prove how hard it is to actually follow Christ instead of rules (and the church has fallen victim to this throughout these last 2000 years).  These practices are about connection; throw out the rule book!

It’s like, you don’t call your grandmother to curry favor with her, you call her to stay connected to her. Because, let’s be honest, she’s going to think you’re the bees knees regardless. (An aside: my grandmother once said to me, “Tim, I think you’re the greatest. But not everyone is like me. So stop being cocky.”)

Anyway, I think God tires of our spiritual score cards. We cannot “obedient” our way into God’s favor; all our correct answers are silenced in the presence of a God who is bigger than all that.

I think God would rather crawl up on a cross and die to show us the futility of keeping spiritual score rather than let us languish under the delusion that somehow life is about passing tests with flying colors.

Actually, that’s exactly what God did.

The One Where Jesus’ Miracle is Not Dying

<Listen along here! The mic went out before we could record it live, so I had to redo this in the empty sanctuary with poor Pam who had to listen to it all over again as she straightened the pews, but we got it done.  Sorry, Pam!>


Are you ready?

Cliff 221 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.


The One Where Jesus’ Miracle is Not Dying

Pray with me.

Call to us from the edge of the cliff today, Lord.

Invite us out there, challenge our complacent view.

Be the radical Christ you are today.


I just want to say that I’m really disappointed in last week’s attendance.  I didn’t see any of you here…and you didn’t see me here, either.  It was the Ice Capades out there last week. Glad we’re all safe.

I love Gospel music and Spirituals.  Music like:

Jesus.  Jesus. Jesus in the morning, Jesus in the noontime.

Jesus. Jesus.  Jesus when the sun goes down.

Love him. Love him. Love him in the morning, love him in the noontime

Love him. Love him. Love him when the sun goes down.

I sometimes like Spirituals and Gospel music for sentimental reasons, like because I sang them with my grandparents, or because they’re catchy and soul-full.

But singer beware! We must beware of sentimentality.  As William Sloan Coffin, that prophetic preacher from Riverside Church in New York City was keen to say, “Sentimentality smothers the truth.”

Which is what I’ve done…dare I say we all sometimes do…with Gospel music.  Because, this is the thing: Gospel music is written from the cliffs of life.  We just choose to not remember that a lot of the time.  The edges, the margins, that’s where it’s written and sung and we’ve domesticated them and put them into Time-Life record collections and…and we do it with Jesus, too.  “Sentimental Jesus” is not the Jesus of today’s reading.  Today we have radical Jesus who nobody wants to buy into and everyone wants to throw off a cliff.

You know, in this time between Christmas and Lent we look intently at who Jesus is, and we get some revelations about him, these “ah-ha” moments, moments of miracle.

In his baptism we have the ah-ha moment that Jesus is chosen by God, a miracle of God incarnate.

At the wedding in Cana we have the ah-ha moment that Jesus is not like the other supposed gods in the world, going to the lavish palaces and gladdening the rich and fat hearts of the powerbrokers, but the one who goes to the little nowhere town to little no-place people to gladden the hearts of those broken by power in the miracle of water turned into wine.

Last week, and I hope you heard Pr. Dave’s great reflection online, but last week we have Jesus emerging from the desert having wrestled with temptation.  He was hungry, he was battling demons, and for 40 days he wandered.  And then he appeared in church, grabbed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read the verse that said that God came to, “give sight to the blind, bring good news to the poor, and to set the captives free.” It was the “ah-ha” moment when we hear God’s prophetical agenda for the world through Jesus.

Think about it: out of all the verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus read from this one.  Not the ten commandments, not the legal prescriptions of “do/do nots”, not the cleanliness texts, but these texts of love and liberation.  And then the miracle is the pronouncement that this work was getting underway in a serious manner in the person of Jesus because he says, “Today, this is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Which brings us to today’s story and here’s the revelation people, and I don’t think you’re going to like it very much, but here it goes.  The revelation, the “ah-ha” that comes from today’s text about Jesus is not about Jesus at all.  It is about us.  And the “ah-ha” moment is this: we don’t want to be about what Jesus wants to be about most of the time.

And today Jesus is kind of snarky and upsets the people, and we’d prefer a domesticated god who isn’t like that. We don’t like to remember that because it challenges us, but it’s true.  Only a radical God can bring about righteousness.

And the miracle of this story is that Jesus doesn’t die, doesn’t get thrown off the cliff. It’s a miracle he won’t repeat.

But there’s one more “ah-ha”, we may not always remember it, but it is this: we need a Jesus who has hung out on the cliffs of life.  The cliffs of life are where we send people who are wrestling with demons or saying things that upset the status quo or make our complacency uncomfortable, and we need a Jesus who has been there because only a Jesus who has been there is a Jesus who can give good news to people who find themselves there.

Because the cliffs of life are where you end up when you lose your loved one and nobody really understands and they don’t like to hear about the pain anymore because it makes them uncomfortable.

Where you end up when drugs have pushed you to the limits and you’ve wrestled with that demon and can’t get out without help but you’ve been pushed to the streets…

Where you end up when you realize, as my brother did, and many of my brothers and sisters do, that you are gay and the world around you doesn’t want to hear it because it doesn’t fit in their worldview and you’re not welcome at church, at home, wherever anymore…

Where you end up when you have ADHD or you’re differently-abled or you lose your legs to diabetes and the world isn’t set up for you what with all its stairs and timed-tests and noise restrictions and fear of people who are different.

Because the cliffs of life are where you’re pushed when you realize that you can’t remember very well anymore and daily tasks become a struggle and you get lost in your own body.

Where you find yourself when getting out of bed is tough and you find no joy in your day and, yes, it’s called depression, but we don’t say that word because people who are depressed are looked on with pity and constantly asked, “And how are we today…”?

A cliff of life is Flint, Michigan, where, yes, Jesus can give living water but, by God, they need clean regular old tap water, too, if they’re to live…

Because the cliffs of life are where you find yourself when you’re aged and no one comes to visit anymore…

Because the cliffs of life are where you find yourself when you are black in a white world and you start to say things about your experience of being black in a white world and the white world doesn’t want to hear it because it means things will have to change…

Because the cliff is where the world shoves people when they say things or do things that don’t fit with what the world wants to hear.  And it’s where we find Jesus today…and most days.  We’ve all been to the cliff of life.  We all know people there.  We’ve all pushed people there…

When Jesus has called me to be with people on the cliffs of life I’ve seen that I am the one in need of sight, blind to the suffering of those we push to the margins.  I’m the impoverished one, needing the good news of Christ to soften my heart to the cries of the margins.  I’m the one captive to status quo living and complacency, needing freedom.

Let us not let sentimentality smother this truth, either, Beloved: the cliffs are not easy places to be, no need to romanticize them.  But it is where we are called as followers of Christ.  It is where we find Jesus healing, serving, saving.

After Jesus’ first sermon the people want to push him off a cliff.  (Which gives us preachers a bit of comfort when we get heckled for a sermon people don’t like…at least we’re in good company)  It was a little too radical for them, and they prefer their god domesticated and non-controversial.

But, as I said earlier, Jesus won’t do this miracle of not dying again.  His next miracle that looks like this one will be the miracle of resurrection.  He’ll die for talking this way, for healing this way, for speaking to the powers of the world in this way. A radical God doing righteous resurrection work.

And when we’re baptized, we’re baptized into this death and resurrection, which, dear people, actually allows us to hang out at the cliffs of life with some boldness.

Because, the thing that keeps us from being with people on the cliffs of life is fear.  We’re afraid of people’s judgments, afraid of those we don’t understand, afraid of having our calendars capitalized in service, afraid of what we find there, even afraid of being wrong.

But if we’re baptized in the death and resurrection of Christ, well, then that means we’ve already given up our lives, people of God.  We’re already dead people.

And you can’t scare dead people.*

Beloved, only dead people can sing the spirituals not out of sentimentality, but with conviction.  Because only being baptized into the life and death of a Jesus who speaks in such a way that we want to throw him off a cliff, who challenges my complacency and invites me to the cliffs, who invites us to a life without fear of the cliffs when we just find ourselves there is one that can embody the awe and majesty of real salvation and not worldly domestication to make my heart belt out,

Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee;

How great thou art, How great thou art.

Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee;

How great thou art, How great thou art!

*Craig Barnes recently used this great phrase in a Christian Century article about the decline of the mainline church.

A Confession and How Jesus is Offensive

celebrity-waiter31This week’s scripture has been going on in my head and heart all day.  All week, really.  It’s Luke 4:21-30.  Read it before you continue or else the rest of this is just going to be weird(er) and not make sense.

Done?  Cool.

It’s terrifying to me in a lot of ways because this incident from my childhood that still haunts me keeps coming up.

So I better blog about it for everyone to read, right?

Before I do, you have to understand something that I’ve come to understand about Jesus, and it is this: Jesus spoke in such a way that people wanted to kill him for it.

We have this notion that somehow Jesus was this nice, gentle soul.  But I think that’s probably just our desire not to be offended that we’re projecting onto God, because really, there’s nothing about Jesus that isn’t kind of offensive, beginning with his origins and continuing to his death.

The whole thing is offensive.  You’ve sung Silent Night too many times to see it now, but it is.  It’s all really offensive.  And we’re all so fragile.

Jesus is the kind of guy that you probably would want to throw off a cliff if you truly listened to him.  Because to listen to him means you’ll have to change.  And not in that “Self-help section of Barnes and Noble” change, but rather the “cut an eye out if it causes you to sin” way of changing.

Because to open the eyes of the blind, as Jesus says he does after he reads this passage in Isaiah, is to do some massive gut surgery on people.

On me.

I remember when I was a young and impressionable youth, probably 9 or 10 and I was visiting my grandparents in Miami, and we were eating at this great little hole-in-the-wall Cuban restaurant called El Segundo Viajante (which is totally still there and you should go if you’re ever in Hialeah).

And after we had ordered the waiter walked away, but I had forgotten something to order and I was a smart-mouthed little kid, and so I said, “Hey, somebody call Pedro back over here. I have more food to order.”  And, of course, Pedro was not that man’s name.

Disrespect of other races was not a family value of ours, but it is still one you pick up, especially when your MO in life is to be funny like it was when I was a smart-mouthed 10 year old and you live in a majority white neighborhood.

And my grandfather turned to me with a very serious look and he said, “That man is proud of his name, and that is not it. And he is proud of his people, too.  And don’t you ever disrespect him again, do you understand me?”


Blind to my own racism, my eyes were opened.

I have come to bring sight to the blind…

And I was embarrassed, and I wanted to think of something to say to my grandfather to shrug him off.  But what to say?  He was right.  My youth was no excuse.

That racist in me wanted to throw my grandfather off a cliff.  That gut surgery was pretty intense.  And it was a surgery that was done on him, too, in his early years.

Joseph Sittler, that amazing and underrated Lutheran theologian, once wrote that for Martin Luther, “the parent tho teaches the child about the goodness of God, who is the shepherd of all children, is as much a doctor of the Word of God as is the archbishop of Mainz.  So when the preacher preaches on ‘the Word of God,’ he or she might not quote Scripture.  when one declares the presence and grace of God, the Word is being preached.” (Gravity & Grace, 44)

My grandfather preached the word to me at that dinner table that night.  And I know it to be truth because it brought me sight in my blindness, it preached good news to a poor heart who needed to be richer in love and acceptance and honor than it was, and it began the process (that is still continuing today) of setting me free from the cell of racism and prejudice that I find myself in all too often.

And that’s to say nothing of what that good word might have meant to that waiter…

But let’s be honest: I would have rather just been reinforced in my smart-mouth kid ways.  This kind of transformation was not easy and is not simple. And is not complete.

Look, I guess I’m just trying to say that you probably know Gospel truth when you hear it because it means that you’ll have to change so radically that you’d probably rather throw Jesus off a cliff than actually do it.

Actually, you’ll probably have to throw yourself off the cliff: your racist self, your phobic self, your ego-centric self, the self you project on Facebook that is only 1/4 true but looks really good and squeaky clean.

And then you find out what resurrection is all about and you’ll probably find Jesus alive and well walking amongst you doing exactly what he said he was doing: healing, restoring, setting free.

Even you.

We are Meant to Burn, Not Burn Out

<No audio this time around.  Sigh…sermons are meant to be heard!  Will get it remedied ASAP>

wheel of deathOn the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “they have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water Jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good win first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now!” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

We are Meant to Burn, Not to Burn Out

Pray with me:

Turn our emptiness into fullness, Lord.

As only you can do.

Provide the space between our old and new selves

Provide the space between our moments

Provide the space between our hearts and our heads

That we might burn, and not burn out.


I love that today’s Gospel is set at a wedding.  It reminds me of my own wedding which was beautiful and wonderful and, well, Rhonda and I forgot to eat at our wedding.  We never sat down.  And so at the end of the night in this beautiful hotel suite we were eating pulled pork out of a ziplock bag with our fingers because we didn’t have utensils and didn’t have a cent to our name.

There’s a metaphor for marriage, right?

I have to begin today with a poem.  Poetry is one of the things that my heart has not callused to in this world; that and a Packer’s touchdown will make me weepy.  So, here we go:

What makes a fire burn

Is space between the logs,

A breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

Too many logs

Packed in too tight

Can douse the flames

Almost as surely as a pail of water would.

So, building fires requires attention

To the spaces in between

As much as to the wood…

That’s from Judy Brown’s amazing poem, “Fire.”  I’ll put it online later today to read the whole thing.

On my desk sits this little bell.  A meditation bowl.  I ring it when I’m frustrated.  I don’t know if the staff has heard it and mistaken it for the coffee pot or the doorbell or something.  Nope; just me in my office frustrated about something.  I should probably put it in my car, too. It’d be dinging so much you wouldn’t hear the radio. And probably when I’m watching political debates.  And probably when I’m watching the news.

A few weeks ago Suzanne, our Communcations Director here at Good Shepherd came in to show me a mock-up of some plans we were working on.  As she clicked around her computer, instead of getting the desired mock-up, we got that spinning wheel of death that appears when your computer is “thinking.”

Thinking; like some 1920’s librarian looking through a card catalog saying, “I know it’s in here somewhere…”

When I see that little spinning wheel of death, all I’m thinking is, “Let us take this computer and destroy it.  And then we shall get a new computer and all be very happy.”

Anyway, I was frustrated, and I think Suzanne was frustrated (I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school here), so I reached over to my desk and (ding) rang the bell.

She said, “Why did you do that?”  She didn’t know the rule that there is no talking until you can’t hear the bell tone anymore.

“Because we were frustrated,” I said.  “We needed a pause.  We needed some space.”

The Sabbath, the space, the Divine pause, is built into our faith, built into our order as Genesis confirms, because God’s wisdom is one that understands this simple truth: humanity is made to burn, not burn out.  And to burn, as Judy Brown’s poem says, we need space, pause, Sabbath.

To burn. Celebrate. Enjoy.  This is what we are made for.

But so often I find myself, and I see some of you, on the verge of burning out.  For a variety of reasons.

In this first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the story begins with the Greek phrase “the wine gave out.” And I love that little line because you can replace “wine” with so many other things and all of a sudden this whole story becomes about us.

The patience gave out. The hope gave out. The love gave out. The marriage gave out. Time gave out. The remission gave out. The job gave out. The knee gave out. The money gave out.

The faith gave out.  And for those of you whose faith has given out, or who have children whose faith has given out, remember this: my faith gave out once, too.  God doesn’t stop working on us even when we stop working on God…

In small and large ways, we are people who live with the reality of things giving out.  And it’s kind of like that, right?  It’s like everything is going great; life is a party.  And then, boom, something gives out.

What happens when it gives out?  For this poor Canaanite couple, it would not only have been rude for the wedding hosts to run out of wine, it would have been shameful.  And in a world that works in honor and shame, like ancient Palestine (and the modern Arabic world, I’d add), it would have been horrible.

And it’s important to note that in his first miracle, a miracle it doesn’t seem like he’s planning on making mind you (mom had to talk him into it like most mothers have to talk their children into doing what’s right), in his first miracle Jesus takes away the shame for this couple in this small town and shows us that God’s intent is not that things give out, but that the party of life continues.

And I’d say that it’s also important to note that it happens in Cana, because if it didn’t happen in Cana you probably would never had heard of the place.  It’s the backwoods.  The place people accidently drive through trying to get somewhere else. It’s like Garner. Or Startown. Or that place where the Beverly Hillbilly’s lived where they were just known as “hillbillies.”

And it’s important that this miracle happens in Cana because in his first miracle Jesus keeps the party going for the little guy and keeps them from shame. So for the person who asks, “Why should God care about me?”, which I hear in overt and covert ways all the time, remember that in his first act after being Baptized in the Gospel of John we have Jesus showing up not in Jerusalem with the religious elite, not in Rome with the lavish palace parties of the politicians, not in the seat of power, but in the seat at table number 9 at this little wedding in this little town with people who probably saw themselves as little.

Did you notice that the jars that the servants fill with water are for “ritual cleansing?”  It’s a sneaky little commentary that Jesus and the writer of John is making about empty religion.  Scholar and theologian Jarislov Pelikan (he wins the coolest name award) talked about empty religion like this.  He said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  And, I should add, I’ve been to churches where everyone was as young as me who were practicing a dead faith full of rules and obligations and a sort of, “Yes, Jesus loves you, but only if you’re…” fill in the blank.  Wisdom knows no age.

Religion is sneaky like that.  It can feed you poison and call it honey, and you won’t know the difference until you try to draw from that water jug only to find that it’s been empty all along.  We must be, as St. Augustine said, people who “believe in thinking and think in believing.”

Back to the bell.  See, Jesus takes these ritual jugs and fills them with water, and from them comes great wine.  New wine.  Wine that keeps the party of life going.  And this ancient spiritual practice, this ringing of a bell, it’s one I’ve taken from a faith mentor of mine.  And he took it from one of his spiritual mentors, and so on and so forth back to probably some little Christian monastic in some little abbey in some nowhere place like Cana who practiced this as a way to take a little Sabbath from the trial at hand and drink some new wine.

See, the bell is me drawing good wine from the ancient ritual pot of Christianity, full of baptismal water from my spiritual ancestors, and it calls me to be in a place and state where instead of giving out, instead of burning out, I can continue to burn.

This little bell has saved me many times. It has allowed me to drink from the water jug of religion and find good wine there when I’m on the spinning wheel of death in life where everything is giving out.  A moment to pray, to sit, to be, is not wasted space in my life, our life.  It is breathing space.

The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, that fire-y prophet out of Riverside Church in New York City once wrote, “In prayer you do not so much hear a voice as acquire a voice—your own.”  I think that’s probably quite true.  Instead of life taking my voice, having it give out, this gives it back to me.

Mother Theresa, once asked what she said when she prayed said, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.”  The interviewer said, “Well, what does God say?”  And she said, “God says nothing; God just listens.”

The pause of the bell, a spiritual practice, a ritual, gives me that space, Divine space, to listen, and to remember that God is listening.

This day is kind of like the space between the logs of the work week.  It’s where we stop to find our voice. It’s the wisdom of just listening, for a moment, to find your voice for the spinning wheel of death that you’re on, when everything feels like it’s giving out.

So much of life makes me feel like I’m burning out. But I want to burn.

And think on this: they put Jesus on the spinning wheel of death as he is shifted from palace to palace after he is arrested, accused of things he didn’t do.  And hope was giving out for the disciples as the supposedly religious people heaped empty threats upon him.  And just as the party was about to stop and Mary, at the bottom of that cross, looked up at him, and the people jeered at him saying, “Why don’t you do something if you’re so powerful?” God takes a Divine pause as the sound of the stone rolling over the tomb rings through the air.

And the silence that followed was only broken by the sound of angel voices giving life back to the very people who had it stolen to them, revealing the empty jar of the tomb as being full of new wine, new life, resurrected life, the stuff that keeps the party of life going.

New life for people on the spinning wheels of death that is this rat race life.  New life for people who think of themselves as nowhere people.  New life for people when it all seems to be giving out, burning out.

Jesus, from his first miracle, to the miracle of the resurrection reminds us that we are meant to burn with life, not burn out.

Every time I ring this bell, whether it’s for something trivial or something huge, well, I’m given a pause, new wine, so that the party of life can continue.

So if it’s about to give out in your life, whatever “it” is, if you’re on the spinning wheel of death, don’t say “I am no one,” and don’t say “I’ll just have to do more and work harder to get God’s blessing” like empty religion will tell you.

Instead hear this bell, allow for the breathing space of this Sabbath, draw deeply from the jars of the faith shown here, and trust that new wine is yours at this table and that the party of your life is going to continue, by God.  Trust that at the celebration that is the party of your life, Jesus is back at table number 9 with the disciples you see gathered here, and God has seen fit to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that this or that giving out in your life will not the end.

Because Beloved, you are meant to burn, not burn out.

The Wedding at Cana and God’s Obession with Underdogs

12400797_10153900432158754_3135967338222807058_nAll the cool stuff in the Bible happens on the third day.

Jonah is in the whale three days and then gets upchucked onto the shores of responsibility. Jesus rises on the third day, landing on the shores of resurrection.  And here, a forgotten little fact, that on the third day of the party (in John 2:1-11), just when it was going to have to stop, Jesus provides the liquid courage so the celebration could continue.

Which has me always wondering when my third day is going to be in life.  When is the cool stuff going to happen?

Because the third day of the work week, Wednesday…not always the awesome day.  Often it’s the day when everything is giving out and we’re just shrugging our shoulders because, well, Friday is in sight and we’ll start to care again next week, right?

And the third day of extended family visits are about that time when everyone’s patience is giving out…

And the third day after oral surgery is when the pain meds are starting to dull, to give out…

And on the third day of this wedding in Cana of Galilee…which, by the way, is nowhereseville.  It’s kind of like saying, “Hey, over in Garner there’s a great party going on.”  And that’s not meant to offend people in Garner; I’m sure it’s a lovely place.  But it’s hard to tell if it’s a dot on the map or a crumb from your beard fallen awkwardly outside Raleigh city limits.  Great insight on this by Alvarez at

That all might not matter to you, but imagine if you were a Canaanite. “All the miracles happen in Jerusalem,” I can hear them saying.  “All the miracles happen in Rome.”

Jesus is one who comes not to go to the center of power, but rather to go to the outskirts and proclaim them as powerful.  We must remember that, here in the seat of power in this state.

And unlike the other gods Bacchus or Dionysus, Jesus comes not to lavish wine upon the high class parties in the palace, but blesses this little wedding in this little no-name place.  It’s a contrast that we’re not supposed to miss here.  Still doubt it?  Who is the one who is let into the secret of the miracle?  The chief steward?  He’s clueless.  The bridegroom?  He’s surprised.  Only the servants are let in on it, and later the disciples.

God’s always doing things like that.  Jesus confirms the suspicions of the Old Testament witness: God is obsessed with the underdog.  Joseph who is thrown in a well, David the sheep farmer, Samuel is just a child, Amos is an outcast, Mary and Joseph…me, you…you get it, right?

The thing about underdogs is that it seems like something is always giving out for them.  The bottom drops out, the money gives out, the job ends, the knee gives out, the Medicaid gives out, the insurance gives out.

As a young parent I am continually reminded of my underdog status in relation to the giant of my children as my patience gives out.

Sometimes life can kind of feel like the cartoon, right?  Where Sisyphus meets Indiana Jones: always pushing the rock or running from it.  Always the underdog.

And I don’t say this as some false humility.  I say it from the vantage point of this office where both CEO’s and the homeless talk to me about feeling the same way: lost, alone, moments of joy and then the depths of sorrow.  It’s not humility, it’s humanity.  And though money does distance you from cold weather, it doesn’t insulate you from a stone cold existence.

Which leads us back to wondering when the third day is when it feels like everything is giving out.

When the wine gives out, Mary turns to Jesus and lets him know of the issue at hand. To which he responds, “Mom!  Not yet!”  Actually he calls her “woman,” which sounds harsh to our ears, but ancient grammarians assure us that he was not being disrespectful, but rather emphatically saying that he wasn’t ready to act (read more on this from Gail O’Day or Feasting on the Word for this text.)

At which point Mary says, “Well, isn’t that cute that you don’t want to do it.” And turns to the servants and says, “Just do what he says.”

Which I kind of imagine is the same way that God acts towards me when I’m obstinate.  A Divine, “Oh, isn’t that cute.  Do it anyway” as my gut leads me forward…which is the Spirit, I’m convinced.  The Holy Spirit resides in my gut…I’m pretty sure about that.  And I’m pretty sure that sometimes we’re supposed to be the miracle to a situation, but we hesitate because we feel we aren’t ready or aren’t qualified…as if Mary was qualified.

Or Jesus, for that matter.

The thing I like about this exchange is that Jesus, though he appears to be indifferent to the reality of humanity at the moment, is moved to act.  It’s kind of like a commentary on how many people view God’s response to humanity.  “God is absent” or “God doesn’t care” or the ever popular “Because there is evil in the world God isn’t real.”

But things are giving out, and God in Jesus does act.  These six jars used for religious purposes are filled first with water, and then found to be wonderful wine.

I mean, if that’s not a commentary on religion, I don’t know what is! (Commentator Linda McKinnish Bridges convinced me of this in her Feasting on the Word piece) The emptiness of most religious allegiance is being exposed here.  Church for church’s sake.  How many times do people bounce around from church to church seeking the “experience,” only to come up empty?  Five times?  Six times?  How many jugs?

But everything is flipped here because you don’t come to a full jar, but an empty jar that is then filled with water by the servants.  And in the church setting, this metaphor, it’s baptismal water, that promise-stuffed identity that we share.  It’s no accident we just last week were talking about baptism.

And when we draw from that identity we don’t find ourselves empty, but full of the rich wine of grace that God offers us when we don’t look for experience to fulfill us, but experience our baptism fully and are then filled.

That’s an everyday miracle, people of God: when we can go through life living out of our God-given identity.

But back to the question at hand, right?  For people who seem to experience things giving out day after day, when does the third day happen when Jesus shows up on the scene?  When do we get to drink from the jar where the grace is and continue the party of life that eludes us continually?

Well, I don’t know.  I could tell you to just hold on, it’s coming soon…but you’re already doing that.  I could tell you that your blessing is just around the corner, but what good would that do?

Instead I’ll go with what I know: God is obsessed with the underdog and Jesus died and rose from the grave on the third day so that we would know God fully now, even as it feels things are giving out and we wait for resurrection.  And sometimes when we feel like we’re pushing a rock that won’t budge or running from a rock that won’t stop, we’re still baptized in the love of a God who doesn’t abandon us.  Go back to the jugs of grace found in the gathered community; go back to the practices of the faith that God has placed on your heart.

Draw on them deeply trusting that, in time, on that third day…no matter when that is…we’ll say together, “I never knew it could be so good.”  I’ll trust that for you today, and later on when I doubt it, you can trust it for me as we all continue celebrate life together because God’s promise doesn’t let the party stop when everything gives out.

We Don’t Get to Choose What Parts of Us Are Baptized

<You should listen along here.  Really.  This one includes two reflections from our two other pastors, and they’re dripping with gospel. Promises made, seen, and kept last Sunday.>

Revelation 22:1-2

Are you ready?

baptism-of-jesus-miniature-prophetic-art-paintingThe angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

We Don’t Get to Choose What Parts of Us are Baptized


Pray with me:

We bring our whole selves to you, God.

Bring your whole self to us, God.

We pray this.



As I went down to the river to pray

Studying about that good, old way

And who shall bear the starry crown?

Good Lord, show me the way…


O sinner, let’s go down

Come on down, come on down.

O sinner, let’s go down

Down to the river to pray.

When I was a kid, I sometimes would burn pictures of myself.

I didn’t like the way I looked in them.  I’d throw them flaming into the grass or the toilet.

I’m not sure where that narcissism came from; certainly God took away my hair to teach me humility. (I don’t really believe that, but that would be something, wouldn’t it?)

I don’t know where I learned that I was ugly, not good enough.  But I had picked it up from somewhere.  I wanted to erase the parts of myself that weren’t worth remembering in my mind.  If I burned them, maybe they wouldn’t be real.

When I was 18 my friend confessed to me that she was cutting herself.  She didn’t like her body, she said.  So little slits on her hips, or on the inside of her arms. The blood flowing helped her to see the pain that she couldn’t quite place.

I sat with a woman a few years ago who had just gone through a divorce.  She sat on my couch, crying. Sobbing. Her son played with a truck in the corner.  She had been unfaithful to her husband.  He had left her and the kids.  And sitting on my couch she could not imagine herself as loveable anymore, to God or anyone.  Her actions were, she thought, too much.

Not trying to be a downer, but let’s go down to the river one last time before we leave here.  Because I worry you might leave thinking some part of you isn’t redeemed in these waters.  Don’t leave like that.

The church has fought for years on how to baptize people.  Some claim it must be done in full submersion, like a spiritual deep-sea dive.  Others attest that just a drop of water will suffice.  I’ve seen both, and done both.  A little drop of water on a Q-tip for a premie baby will, indeed, suffice.  I’ve done that holy moment and the flood of fearful, grateful tears surrounding it made for the River Jordan…

I think the church should spend a little more time talking about what parts of us are baptized, though, because that seems to be where we get confused most often.

There are stories of Ivan the Terrible’s soldiers all being baptized while holding their hand outside of the water…that way they could still kill with that unholy hand, with the rest of themselves remaining holy.

With that logic, I wonder if some of us imagine our mouths aren’t baptized.  Or our Facebook feeds.  Or our telephone lines.  Or our email accounts.

That’s not how it works.

It’s just as easy to hurt with our baptized bodies as it is to be hurt in our baptized by bodies.

We don’t get to choose which parts of our lives are baptized, people of God.

When Jesus kneels to wash the disciple’s feet and Peter asks him to wash his whole body, Jesus assures him, “No…the feet are enough.”

Baptism is for all of it. Our past. Our future. All of it.  Even the parts of ourselves that we think we should forget because they’re not worth remembering.  Even the parts of our histories that we’d rather have erased from the scrapbook of our lives, mistakes we’ve made.  Even the parts of our bodies, the parts of our souls, scarred by a life that hasn’t always seemed worth it.

All of it is baptized, which means all of it redeemed.

Baptism is not for the holy. Baptism is for the human.  Baptism is not about refraining from sin, and more about not drowning in it because we’ve already been drowned in the waters of grace. Baptism is about God keeping God’s promises more than us keeping ours…and thank God for that because, by and large, our track record on promise keeping is pretty spotty.

And in those times when we feel even less than human, when we don’t see a way of redemption, when we don’t know if our lives are worth it, we need the better angels around us to point us back to the water of life.  I don’t know if there’s a better description of what a godparent is, by the way…

Martin Luther said it like this: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”

At the beginning of the Bible the first people ate of a tree and brought shame upon themselves.  They knit leaves together to hide the shame.

But at the end of the Bible, in this book we just read, the leaves of the tree aren’t meant to hide shame, but to heal it.

And the fruit of that healing tree can be eaten in any season of life: whether you’re a baby, middle schooler, middle age, or one step more.

Which means that the healing of baptism, the healing of that grace, is for you at any time.  And that those parts of us, of you, of your past…and even those parts of our future still to come, all of it is baptized in the promise of a God who is not intending us to live in shame, but live healed.

As a godparent I’ve promised to remind my godchildren that as much as possible.  This morning one of my godchildren, Jonah, will unwrap a present for me.  It’s a water toy.  Just like it has been the past four years, and probably will be the next 40. And my hope is that, every time he plays in the water he remembers that his whole life and being is as redeemed as the first time he played in these baptismal waters.  That’s what godparents do for their godchildren.  And as a baptized one, I need you to help me remember it; I sometimes need you to be my godparents.

Leave trusting that little water is enough to flood our lives with grace.  Let’s leave like that.

Baptism: A Reflection

Revelation brianq_river-924x34522:1-2
: The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.


What heals your soul?  I’m preaching on these verses, riffing on baptism this Sunday, and thinking a lot about it.

Poetry often heals my soul.  I’m a poet at heart; always have been.

Mr. Seacrest, in my Honors English course my third year of high school, immersed us in poetry.  It was my first taste of Walt Whitman.  His collection Leaves of Grass is marvelous.  In the multi-piece poem “Song of Myself” you’ll find, in the third section, this lovely line,

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not
my soul

This little line comes after long reflections on how he is born of parents who are born of parents, on how at the age of 37 he is full of all of life.

In previous years, mostly the Middle Ages, it was taught and thought that baptism was to somehow ensure a sweet escape for the soul from this world.  But that is not how it was in the ancient church.  In the ancient church it meant so much more.

In the ancient church, and indeed in my own theology, baptism is not for escaping life, but for immersing deeply in life.

In baptism we have a new birth. “Born again” is the truth, though that phrase has been abused.

It is not like that first birth that world gives us where from the moment we arrived we were force fed the ideas that we need to be successful, that we need to strive to constantly “be all that we can be,” that fame and fortune and power and the most money and most toys were what we’re to be about.

Plenty of flames have been snuffed out too early under the pressure of trying to always touch the sun.

No.  In baptism, in those waters that become a new amniotic fluid for us, we are taught to live in a different world.  But it is not a world apart from this, but absolutely, deeply in it.

Baptism, at its core, makes us more human, not more holy.  Except for that, in God’s eyes, the human is the one who is precious, set apart, holy.  Because, you see, in baptism we are not told we must earn value, but proclaimed as valuable.  We are not told we must earn our keep, but are told that we are life worth keeping.

This is the primary gift of the Holy Spirit: giving us back to ourselves, helping us to see our lives and the lives of those around us as God views them.

In baptism we are birthed into a kingdom reality embedded in this one, but the waters that flow over us make us immune…if we’ll listen to the promises…to all those other voices that try to place other values on us.  And that allows us to live, truly live.

Whitman had it right: our soul is sweet…and so is everything else when seen in this way.

Revelation is one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It’s not a fortune telling book.  It’s no guide to the end of the world.  It is a guide for navigating this one.

And in this vision of the kingdom we have a river flowing through the city.  And it will not flood like the rivers of Raleigh.  And it will not dry up, either.  It is the living spring that flows here, where there is water enough for all.

And in the beginning of the Bible leaves are knit together to form clothing, to hide shame.  And here, at the end of the Bible, the leaves that reach over this mighty river are used not to hide, but to heal.  To heal the shame, the hurt, the pain, the confusion, everything that keeps us from being present in front of God and each other.

And in those first books of the Bible, the 12 tribes struggle and fight, and some whither on the vine and die.  But here, at the end of the scriptures, the 12 fruits of this godly tree thrive and produce whether it is spring, summer, winter, or autumn.

You see, dear people, poetry, metaphor, it feeds the soul because it feeds the imagination, and that is why God speaks in this way.  Revelation is a book of apocalyptic poetry that aims at helping us live into a different reality than the one we’re presented with on the news.  It aims to help us live into a different life than the one we’re born into.

Because this little bit of water is actually a holy flood, washed over you.  Just as this little meal of the Eucharist is actually a holy banquet.

And my little life, and your little life, is actually a holy giant of a life in a world that is clamoring for the poetry of salvation, but doesn’t know how to read anything but spreadsheets and facts that leave us coming up cold.

God has never been about facts.  Cold, hard, facts.  The fact is that Mary was an unwed teenager.  The truth, the poem, is that she is the theotokos, the “God-bearer”.

The fact is that ancient Israel was a miniscule nation amongst giants.  The truth, the poetry, is that they were a great nation, as numerous as the stars.

The fact is that I was born into a rat race world.  The truth, the poetry, is that I was baptized into a kingdom that cares nothing for races because the prize is already won.

And that truly is sweet.  It allows me to acknowledge that my soul is sweet, and everything along with it, because I have nothing to earn, only to enjoy.

How refreshing.  How sweet.

How healing.