Nothing Was Ever So Great

<Listen along by clicking here, and then you can experience the Jackson 5 in stereo sound>

Matthew 28:1-10

its-a-slideshow-about-nothing-1-638After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Nothing Was Ever So Great

I, for one, am glad that giraffe was born. Now we can all get back to life.  If it hadn’t been born, none of you would be here, we’d all still be glued to our phones. Can you imagine what the history books will say about this period?  “And then, during the months of March and April, nothing happened as everyone waited for the giraffe to be born…”

I may not be old, but I am also not-so-young anymore.  For instance, I’m old enough to remember when the show Seinfeld wasn’t in reruns.  I tuned in every Thursday night with my father and brothers to watch that show; it was our little family religion.  My mother opted not to watch, claiming the show made her (and us) dumber.

She may have been right.  After all it was a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.”

But, I would contend in Seinfeld’s defense, that nothing has its merits.

In fact, I would contend that Easter is actually “all about nothing,” a commonality that I perhaps share with my atheist friends, though for different reasons.

Here’s the thing: the great miracle about Easter is the nothingness that was found at the tomb that morning.  The emptiness. The vacuousness of it all.

If we’re quite honest with ourselves, we don’t really like this Easter story, at least not on the face of it. We don’t like it because it makes absolutely no sense.  The logical sequence that our minds enjoy operating under is thrown off with this story because, here’s how it is supposed to go.

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And there they found Jesus’ body just as it had been left there three days ago.”

We live in a world of logical sequence.  We make meaning out of everything, and point A must lead to point B.  In fact, we sing about this, you sing about this.  I know you do.  I know you do because you cannot hear the songs of St. Michael, St. Jermain, St. Jackie, St. Tito, and St. Marlon without singing it.

Oh, Beloved, it wouldn’t be an Easter sermon if we didn’t do some singing, and you know this one…because we take great joy in singing,


Easy as

1 2 3

Simple as

Do re me


1 2 3

Baby you and me girl…

This is how our lives operate: logically, in order, A leads to B leads to C.   I like to be able to count on a few things in life: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Warm coffee will cure most any bad mood. And dead people stay dead.

We lead logical lives.  Logic makes sense. Logic is wisdom.

At least, that’s what we’d like to believe.  But it’s just not true with God.  For as much as we pretend our lives are logical, this weird and strange, illogical phenomenon has entered each of our lives in one way or another, and disrupts the whole thing: love. And if the apostle is right, God is love embodied.

Love defies logic.  Love defies straight lines and the rules of physics.  And love, Beloved, is what led that tomb to lay empty that early morning.  God loves us so much, God won’t stay out of our lives, even when we try to bury God.

Love does not belong to the phylum of logic, but rather to the phylum of “alternative wisdom”…which is not like “alternative facts.”

Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that defies logic, bends the conventional, and speaks a truth deeper than A leads to B leads to C.  Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that flows from the places of our lives that have been emptied by life: the battle with cancer, the empty side of the bed after a loved one has gone, the empty syringe that used to fill with drugs but which you don’t need anymore, the cracks in a heart broken open again and again so that it is now nimble and still beating and not that rigid stone it used to be.

Alternative wisdom that comes from thinking you’re going to die, and you find yourself still breathing.  And it’s a wisdom that, hidden deep in its, promise, assures that even in death there is more to come.  If Jesus’ tomb is empty, then so is yours, Beloved.

Alternative wisdom is that wisdom that flows out of a deep truth that dares to suggest in a world addicted to violence and mind-bogglingly big bombs and terrorist attacks and school shootings that in-spite-of-it all, life cannot be stopped by death.

It is a wisdom that stumbles upon the nothingness of the empty tomb and takes great joy because if even death does not have the final say than, indeed, we have nothing to fear in life.

Jesus embodies such wisdom, and we who gather around the story week after week here at Good Shepherd long to embody it, too, and sometimes do when we’re at our best.  When we’re at our worst, well, then we just need to hear it again and again because this love has a history of turning lives around, emptying graves, and even doing that rare miracle of turning the cynical heart into a hopeful one.

The church has often messed this story up.  We’ve often passed God off as this angry loan-shark who has loaned us life and we better do something good and pay back the times we mess up because, well, it’s all on loan.  The church has often peddled the idea that our sin and God’s mercy come in equal parts.  That is: our badness is only balanced by God’s mercy.

But that’s not the story of Easter, friends.  If Easter tells us anything it is that God has infinitely more mercy than we have sin, and so when we show up at the tombs of our mistakes and our griefs like these poor disciples showing up at Jesus’ tomb probably sad and regretful that they stood by and watched him die, afraid those mistakes will define us in the end, that we’re messed up for good, that we’ll only be known by the worst parts of us, we find that God has already moved on with a love that cannot be stopped, dragging us away from that tomb along with him because he loves us too much to let us stay dead.

Let me say it another way: when you visit those tombs of your lives, the mistakes that you can’t let go of, the hurts and pains and scars others have left on you that don’t lead to wisdom but only lead to fear, Easter is here to tell you that God is in the business of dragging you away from that place, resurrecting you along with Jesus because those things won’t define you in this life.

Part of the reason we’ve lost the alternative wisdom of love is because we’re so full of the residue that comes from our insanely logical living that there’s no room left for love.  The residue that has filled our lives with cynicism and busyness and anger and hurt and resentment.

All of those things bind us, Beloved, like burial clothes, and keep us dead.

But if St. Irenaeus is correct, and “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” then Easter indeed invites us into a different way of being and living and moving in the world.  A way that gives testimony to what that pervasive peddler of alternative wisdom William Sloane Coffin says, “powerless love winning over loveless power.”

So, what story does your life give testimony to?

One of the best peddlers of alternative wisdom are children.  And I don’t mean that in any romantic or sentimentalized way.  Trust me, as a Dad, I know that children are as much pain as they are pleasant.  But if you wonder why I’m so open to having them serve up here in worship it is because they teach me, us, about God and God’s wisdom all the time.

For instance, my son Finn, who is 4, on Good Friday as he was going down for a nap said to my wife Rhonda, “Mommy, I’m going to talk to God for a bit.”  To which she said, “Ok…” and then he followed up with, “But you can’t see God because God is camouflaged.”

And indeed God is, in that moment camouflaged as a sleep 4 year old boy, spouting alternative wisdom in the face of a world that claims that the only real thing is the thing you can touch, taste, see, hear, and feel.  But in that moment he spoke to something that can’t be sensed in that way, something that can’t be held as much as it holds you; something that can’t be seen as much as you know that you are deeply and truly seen; something that can only be tasted in bread and wine; something that can only be heard with the ears of the heart.

Something that points to the nothingness of an empty tomb and says, “That is good news for you and me!  God is camouflaged in this nothingness found here!”

Good news because it means that God’s love cannot be killed, and because of that we are free to truly live.

In your bulletins you’ll find at the end a poem by Mary Oliver, it’s the last part of her poem “When Death Comes,” and today I’m going to encourage all of us to choose St. Irenaeus over the Jackson 5 and embrace an alternative wisdom that encourages to truly live in a world addicted to tombs being filled.

Today, we are Easter people, brothers and sisters addicted to the love of a God who encourages us to be married to amazement, to take the world into our arms, not visiting life like a scared tourist, but living because God in Christ lives and nothing was found in that tomb.

Because, on Easter, nothing was ever so great.

Things Are the Way They Seem


<To listen to the sermon, just click here. Have your palm branches ready!>

1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Things Are the Way They Seem

Our cry of hosanna today

Will be crucify tomorrow

God of peace.

It always goes this way with us.

We love and we hate in erratic measure.

Help us to be honest in these coming days

About ourselves

And about the lengths you will go in love

To show us a different cry in the world.


Sometimes things are not what they seem.

I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot this past week as different people have come into my office, uneasily spying a pair of pantyhose on the floor behind my desk.

I guess a prudent pastor would have hidden them in a desk drawer or something, but I’d rather leave my dirty laundry out to dry for all to see…

It’s not what it seems, though. I’ve been carving the Paschal Candle that we’ll use at the Easter Vigil, filling the design back in with wax, and then you buff it, you smooth it out, with pantyhose.

So, a staff person who shall remain nameless brought me a discarded pair, and there it lay, on the ground in my office, like the scene of some lascivious incident when, in fact, it’s been used for a wholly holy purpose.

“Sure…” the skeptic will say (I’m looking at you Pr. Royall).  Pr. Royall, who commented that he didn’t imagine I’d wear that color…

Sometimes things are not what they seem, and I bet that’s what these people crying out to Jesus in this strange scene were hoping.  They were used to processions like this. Nobility often entered on stallions, the Emperor on a white stallion with full infantry, a parade to show power and might.

And here Jesus is, riding on an ass, with no infantry but some ragtag crowd who are a little nervous about the whole affair.

I bet these people, shouting, “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save us now!” were hoping that this guy riding an ass wouldn’t be the weakling he appeared to be.

But sometimes things are as they seem, Beloved.

And this donkey-stealing, donkey riding Jesus will turn out to be just as weak as these people fear he might be, which makes it all the easier to shout “crucify” at the man they, just days previous, had put all their chips on.

This is why I’m always confused by self-help Christianity.  Our example of God is not one who wields power, and who has everything under control, but the God who wields love as his weapon of choice and willingly gives up control because that’s what love calls out of us.

Or, as the bald and beautiful Richard Rohr says, “We Christians are such a strange religion! We worship this naked, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, but we always want to be winners, powerful, and on top ourselves . . . ”

If you think Jesus is going to make you wealthy, healthy, happy, and safe, you’re reading a different Bible.  The Jesus who never holds down a job, at least not in his 30’s, and who hangs out with prostitutes, sick people, and dead people, invites his disciples to follow him into what will certainly be his death-parade today.  Nothing safe about that.

That’s the Jesus we get.  And the fact that we continually wish we had a different type of Jesus says much more about us than it does about God.

Because, if we think that God can’t save through self-giving love, then we haven’t really believed this whole story anyway.  The fact that our shouts of “Save us!” so quickly turn to “Crucify” when the saving doesn’t happen exactly as we think it should just shows our propensity to kill off those gods in our lives that don’t deliver like we want them to, always searching for that next thing to do what the previous one didn’t: make us feel better about ourselves, make us skinnier, make us stronger, make us wealthier, make our church more successful, make our business more profitable.

Humans, we, constantly lay our chips on who we think will be the winner, and just as constantly move those chips the minute it doesn’t deliver.

But God does just the opposite.  God puts the chips on the loser, not just on this humble Jesus who makes this very political statement today by refusing to ride in on a horse, choosing instead a donkey, the symbol for stubborn peace, but Beloved, if you don’t get it now I don’t know that you ever will, God puts the chips on you, too.

You, who so easily flits between affinities, who so easily doubts, who so easily pats yourself on your back for all your religious pieties that mean nothing in a reality where you can’t buy your way into the Kingdom of God.  God puts the chips on me, who has a tendency to be full of wanderlust and dreams and eloquent words but is still sometimes afraid to speak conviction because, in my heart, I hate disappointing you.

Only a God who doesn’t choose the route of power will have the will and the gumption to place that kind of bet.  And that, Beloved, is the kind of God we get, and we all get saved because of it.

Because the only way to break the games of power and prestige in this world is to lose at that game and start playing a new one.

And that’s what God in Jesus does: God’s new game is one of self-giving love, of self-giving service, of stubborn peace.

And that’s a game no one can win at, because it’s a game of always putting the other person first.  But, that’s ok, because as this loser Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  Oh, and he also said, “those who give up their lives will gain it.”  I mean, it’s almost like Jesus has been preparing us for this scene the whole time!

But we didn’t believe it.  It couldn’t be like that, right?  It couldn’t be that God will lose and that we will win because of it…but that’s the way it seems to have happened.

And sometimes things are exactly as they seem, Beloved.  Show up on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this week…you’ll see it.


Which Parade are You In?

2012 Tournament of Roses Parade in PasadenaThere are two parades coming into the city.

This parade on the right side of town is full of pomp and prancing, white stallions, banners, and calls for peace through intimidation and (mostly) good intentions.

This parade has a rider on noble steed, demanding fealty and promising safety, security, and riches beyond compare for you and your family; for your nation and tribe.

He has the power of law behind him.  He can condemn and can save. He can compel and coerce, but he chooses not to (or so he says).

You marvel at his phalanx of soldiers, parading their weapons of choice: spears and swords, bombs and tanks, fancy words and delightful spectacle. With him, you are assured to have victory in the eyes of the world.

The other parade, from the other side of town, has no noble steed.  He makes no promises other than that those who lose their life will gain it, that there is no greater love than giving up yourself for your friend, that if you follow him you will see God’s work in the world but probably also see humanity’s most difficult side.

The other parade has no impressive phalanx of soldiers, but a motley crew of people you mostly look past. The only banners they wave are the coats on their backs. The only weapons they have can’t be held in their hands, but are their hands: open, reaching out in love and service and hope, eagerly inviting you to join hands with them in this alternative parade.

He gives no promise of security. In fact, you’re likely to be hurt in this parade.  There are no promises of success; in fact, if you listen to the one leading the assembly, you’ll learn quite quickly that failure and success aren’t even the right terms for what is happening.

He cannot save in the way you want him to, and he has no force of the law behind him (though the Law still exists). He can’t compel, he can only woo (according to C.S. Lewis). He can condemn, but he chooses not to.

With him you are assured to not care about victory in the least anymore.

Two parades come through the city. This week, and every week. These parades continually march.

Which one are you in?

See you Sunday!

See If It Doesn’t Happen: A Holy Week Challenge

holy-week-20132Greetings Church,

Holy Week is almost upon us, and I find myself being really reflective these days.  This time of the church year, and even this time of year…a time of transitions…always feels very holy and unpredictable.

Holy Week is the time in the church year where we pack a lifetime into the span of three (OK, maybe four) days. Growth, heartache, love, death, birth and re-birth, tears of all kinds…they make an entrance Holy Week.

It all begins like much of life begins: around food.  Most every gathering that has meaning in our human lives happens around food, from birthdays to funerals.  

Maundy Thursday is just like every other meal in many ways, but also becomes unlike any meal because the food we share becomes directly connected to the love we are to share.  Jesus will give us his body for our body, and then commands (where the Latinized “Maundy” comes from…do some homework, look it up) us to give our lives to and for others.

We’ll eat together and wonder what he means. We’ll wonder, “Is it I?” when he says that someone in the room will betray him.  We’ll wash, and clear the table, and end the night in an eerie silence that will invite us to keep watch.

Watch and wait.

On Good Friday we’ll gather in the leftover darkness from the night before, except now the space around us, and within us, will feel stark. Cold. Like those nights when you feel most alone. We’ll gather together for warmth and find little as we hear a story of heartache, betrayal, and death.  We’ll look at the tools of torture, the cross and angry words, and we’ll touch them, finding a connection between their use and our own use of angry words and hurtful acts of violence in the world.  

The candles will be snuffed out for good, leaving us in complete darkness except for the sound of unseen bells ringing a song of soft hope…but it feels far away. Still full from the previous night, we’ll choose to stay empty, embracing the shadows because, well…sometimes you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and we need to know how to survive on grace and hope alone in those times.

This is good practice.

And then on Saturday we’ll gather again, just as the sun is going down, and we’ll create a brand new fire from candles never held before, having left the candles extinguished from the night before where they rest.  And we’ll sing about a new light breaking, even as the sun is setting, and we’ll sit around this fire and tell stories.

Not just any stories, but salvation stories.  Stories that will make the hair on your neck rise and the goose flesh take shape on your arms.  Stories about Adam and Eve, about Mariam and Ezekiel, about Peter and this tomb that just won’t stay shut or full.

And we’ll take that fire, and move from the place of darkness into a garden of light with fresh flowers and banners and Alleluias and trumpets.  We’ll process everyone in and up to the front where we’ll find new water in a font that had been bone dry.  We’ll baptize young ones and not-so-young ones, we’ll welcome new members, and we’ll sing resurrection songs as we gather around a feast that looks an awful lot like the meal that started all of this, except the feast on this night is had in full, new, bright clothes with bright candles.

And then we’ll continue the feast with some sparkling grape juice, fresh fruit, and sparkling wine.

We will, in the span of three days, move from death to life; from meal to full cross to empty tomb.  We will cry tears of sadness and tears of joy within a few hours of each other, and we will learn about life, death, and new life while doing it.

This is the most important time of the church year, and you need to go through it all to see it all and to feel it all.

Yes, the kids will get fidgety, and trust me, I empathize there.  But it’s worth it.

Yes, you’ll be at church three nights in a row, and probably that Sunday morning too.  But it’s worth the sacrifice of time.

No, it won’t be the same sermon. No, it won’t be the same hymns. And no, the Easter Vigil is not the same as Easter Sunday services.  The Vigil is a grand feat and feast of its own, with its own surprises and fun.

And, yes, you have heard this story before…

But you need to hear it again, Beloved, because it may not have taken last time, and you need a refresher.  Because in the previous years, in many and various ways, you’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  You’ve eaten with friends and eaten alone. You’ve died, and you’ve been reborn.

And perhaps you’re still waiting for that last piece.

This story, this same story, is repeated again and again, every single year, because if there is one story in our Christian family that needs telling and retelling, it is this one.

In a world full or moralisms and rules, trite sound bites and oppressive social norms, the church chooses a bodily journey over empty words in Holy Week, and we end up really rising because of it.

And we will do it all in fine fashion.

So, come to Confession on Wednesday evening at 7pm and clear your spirit. Come to Maundy Thursday at 12:15 or 7pm to eat with your friends and wonder aloud, “Is it I, Lord?” when Jesus talks of his being betrayed.

Come and sit in silence at 12:15 or 7pm as we retell the Passion of our Lord (with a special children’s version at the 12:15 service).

And then come to the Great Vigil at 7pm on Saturday to hear salvation stories, to witness new Christians baptized and longtime Christians welcomed into our faith community.

And then, be resurrected yourself, Beloved.

See if it doesn’t happen.

See you in Chruch.



There is Comfort in the Shadows, but What Do You See?

blindMy preaching professor, who is himself legally blind, once said something to me that totally changed this healing story…and every Biblical healing story…in such a way that I can’t ever see things the same way anymore.

He said, “Tim, heaven is not a place where I receive sight.  I do not wished to be healed in heaven, at least not that kind of healing.  Heaven is the place where it doesn’t matter that I’m legally blind.”

That is echoing through my head these days, especially as we have the reading of the man born blind for this Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 9:1-41).  Because if heaven is to be a place on earth, something that God intends as we pray “thy kingdom come” (as well as something Belinda Carlisle intends) the question before you and me is: how is that going?

Oh, if you didn’t read the John text above, go ahead and do so. I’ll wait.

Ready? Great.

So, if heaven is to be a place on Earth, and heaven isn’t a place where every single perceived malady is reversed, but rather a place where we live in such a way that everyone is able and enabled, how are we to do this, and do it with Christ at the center?  It’s a good question, especially because our world is biased toward those who conform to mental and physical norms.

But if you read this section of John carefully, I think you’ll actually see, as I do, that those lacking sight in the passage is everyone but the man born blind.  They are living in the comfort of their own self-made shadows, and Jesus provides a much-needed light through the testimony of this man. Need proof?

Exhibit A: the disciples, as tactless as ever, walk up to the man and rudely ask, “Hey Jesus, is this guy a sinner, or are his parent’s sins being born out upon him and causing his blindness?”  What ignorance. What short-sightedness! How could they say something like that?

And then we, upon hearing our neighbor’s trouble, say things like, “Well…they kind of deserve it, as irresponsible as they are.” Or, “Must be God’s will…” Or, fill in the blank.  Our desire to have rhyme and reason for every instance in the world is just as prevalent as it was in ancient days.

In fact, one of the shouts that I hear most from this text is: sometimes stuff happens in life that cannot be explained!  What matters is what we do with where we are, by God.

Exhibit B: Speaking of explanations, let’s look at the lame ones offered in the text by these parents.  The parents, out of fear, refuse to claim their child’s experience as their own. Why would they abandon their child’s testimony?

And then we, upon hearing the school children who feel bullied, say “kids are kids.”  And we, upon hearing that kids go hungry in our schools, say “well, we can’t feed everyone, and their parents use their money irresponsibly anyway…” And we, upon hearing our children claim they feel left out and discriminated against because of their race and creed, turn a blind eye to the claims because there is a deep seated and subversive fear in us that, if we acknowledge these testimonies, things might have to change…we might have to change.

This truth was hammered home again as we joined with Christus Victor and Joy of Discovery this past Sunday to watch the movie Selma.  What will we do with the testimony seen there?

Exhibit C: The Pharisees play a great foil in this section of John. They claim Jesus cannot be from God because, “he does not keep the Sabbath.”  His healing was apparently “work,” strictly forbidden on the Sabbath.  Is it not clear that he’s tapped into the Divine through what he says and does?!  He’s obviously touching and reaching people, and changing lives for good!

And then we, upon hearing a person of a different faith provide powerful wisdom, say, “Well, they’re not saved, you know…”  And then we, upon hearing a different way of worshiping (can I hear an “amen!?”), or in seeing someone lead worship who hasn’t historically been allowed to lead worship, say, “Well, that’s not how we do it…that can’t be right.”

If heaven is to be a place on Earth, and heaven is to be a place where it doesn’t matter if a person born blind can’t see, perhaps part of the Godly work to get us there is to start by becoming sighted people ourselves: clear to our own biases, our own assumptions, our own issues with living in a world where things happen for no reason.

Perhaps we start by listening carefully to Christ’s question “What do you see?” as we look through the muck and mud of life, and look around to see those times we’re too often shortsighted and don’t want to look because we, like those parents, are caught by fear.

Fear of change. Fear of having to change. Fear that God might be calling us to change.

There is comfort in the shadows, after all. It might be dark, but it’s familiar.  And yet God calls us, like Lazarus, from the darkness of those shortsighted tombs.  God calls us, like these parents, to own up to the experience of God changing things in this world and in our lives.

God calls us, like this man born blind, to testify to what we now see, having been touched by Christ.

So, what do you see?


Jesus Has Amnesia of the Heart

<Open your heart, and your ears, and listen along by clicking here>

Are you ready?

maxresdefault1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus Has Amnesia of the Heart

Abraham was given a cosmic-sized promise, Lord.

More often than not, we just want little things in comparison:

Healing for Brad, peace in our nation

Safe streets, good schools

Honest work, food for hungry mouths,

That you would remember only the good in us

And erase the bad.

They seem little in the grand scheme, but mean the world to us.

If you will, Lord, make us the answer to our prayers today,

That we might be saved through Christ.


The brilliant and beautiful British poet, Denise Levertov has this multi-stanza poem, The Cold Spring, that brought me back to myself on Wednesday.  I found myself reading it as I was holding in my heart the many places in our lives, here at church and otherwise, in need of the kind of subversive strength that poetry provides.  Holding Brad from afar.  Holding the memory of Frank and prayers for the Kuhars.  All a mix of prayer and heartache, beautiful and broken.

It feels like a lot.  One of the things I’ve promised myself as a preacher is not to pretend to be something I’m not; not to say anything from the pulpit that I didn’t myself hold true; to be vulnerable because we have a vulnerable God and if we’re ever going to be able to talk about God in any real way, we have to be vulnerable: to change, to heartache, to being reshaped, to loving and losing.

In The Cold Spring, stanza iii, Levertov uses this wondrous phrase that jumped out at me.  She wrote, “In this amnesia of the heart…” and I didn’t go on with the rest of the line, because this one so grabbed me.

Amnesia of the heart.  What does that mean?  Why does that feel so real right now?

I think one of the reasons it feels so real right now is because I feel like there’s a lot of confusion.  My “to do” list for the week became a “to don’t” list.

Don’t obsess about that small detail, it doesn’t matter.  There are more important things.

Don’t fuss with that project today, Tim. Hug your babies.

Don’t neglect to pray and meditate today, that paperwork can wait another week.

Don’t fret about filing your taxes. The government will get their share, and hearts need to be tended and given their share.

I’m not saying that God is encouraging procrastination.  For most of us, I don’t think we need any Divine encouragement to procrastinate.

What I’m saying is that, sometimes in life it can feel as if your heart has amnesia: it forgets, and therefore forgoes, what is important for what is immediate or obnoxious or in demand.

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, flattering him by calling him “Rabbi” and seeing confirmation in Jesus’ specialness through his miracles, the scriptures say he “comes by night” which is an indication that he comes in great confusion, probably spiritual confusion.

In the Gospel of John in particular, all things that happen at night or in darkness are spiritually confusing: the woman washing Jesus’ feet, the last supper, the crucifixion and burial in the tomb.

It is clear that Nicodemus has amnesia of the heart.  He thinks faith is about lists and getting things right and miracles and flattery and doing something to get in the “kingdom of God.”  In fact, in the Gospel of John, it could be said that all organized religion has amnesia of the heart.

Glad organized religion has cleared that up…

Nicodemus isn’t clear anymore what it means to be near to God, and so he flatters Jesus in the hopes that Jesus will flatter him with some secret insight.  Jesus instead flatters him with an impossible task: be born again.  The Greek here is fun, it’s punny if you will, because anothen, the Greek word used here, can mean “born again” OR “born from above.”  Nicodemus obviously thinks Jesus means the first way, when Jesus really means it the second way.

It’s funny, though, because according to Jesus being “born from above” is not something you can do.  It is something that God does to you. For you. With you. On you. All of that and more.

It is a new way of looking at the world. It is taking off your glasses that show everything in terms of right and wrong, good and bad; it’s about taking off your score-keeping spectacles, and seeing everything through glasses of wholeness and grace.

Don’t give me that confused look. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.  Don’t you understand these things?

No. We don’t.  Because it’s not something to be understood like a math equation.  So much of faith has been reduced to a math equation these days.  Say this prayer, believe the right things, and you shall be saved is the message we send so often.

It’s the same message that the faith in Jesus’ day sent, too.

And Jesus changes that message, hence why they threw him on the cross.  This is part of that “where did the cross come from,” question.

Jesus does not say to Nicodemus, “You so loved God’s word that you gave your heart to it so that everyone who does this God grants abundant life.”

Jesus instead says, “God so loved God’s world that God gave to us the Son, that whoever trusts that this happens has abundant life.”-my own translation from the Greek.

What grace. What a gift.  Why, Beloved, do we keep trying to earn by flattery and confirm through miracles what is so obviously ours already?

You know, Jesus has amnesia of the heart, too, thank God.

Jesus’ heart forgets all of our Nicodemus sides that try to curry God’s favor, who still think deep down that by following some set of rules we’re storing up righteousness.

Jesus’ heart forgets all of those moments where we love ourselves but not our neighbor.

Jesus’ heart forgets our own forgetfulness and replaces is with the only memory that God seems to have sometimes: the memory of how God so loves the world that God doesn’t want to condemn, but only redeem.

Where our hearts seem to have amnesia when it comes to what is important and remember those things that curse, Jesus’ heart seems to have amnesia when it comes to the curses, and only remembers that we, by God, are important.

Being born from above, Beloved, means that kind of amnesia of the heart: seeing the belovedness all around you.  Nicodemus, to be born from above, needs to let go of his flattery and attempts to get it right, and instead see everything in the light of God’s grace.

And this is a grace that doesn’t gloss over our cracks and failures, but rather just seems to have come to the consensus that none of that is fatal in the eternal end.

I wrote in Friday Faithprints about all the times I could recall where I could say I’ve been born again, or born from above as the translation is better known.

All of those moments were broken and beautiful: births, deaths, encounters that changed and forged me and brought awareness to not only my amnesia of the heart and my ability to forget what is important and focus too much on what is immediate or loudest or obnoxious, but also brought assurances that Jesus had a remarkable way to not mark my moments spiritual confusion as something fatal, but a part of a beloved creation.

This is what Nicodemus, what we all, need to remember but so easily forget.

You know how the story ends, right?  We see Nicodemus again, if we keep reading the Gospel of John. Nicodemus comes back, again by night, in the last chapters, to take the body of Jesus off the cross and place it in the tomb.  Spiritually confused Nicodemus was probably most confused at that moment, when it seemed like death had won: the miracle worker couldn’t keep from dying.  It seems Jesus’ heart was vulnerable after all to the strain of life and death.

All of our hearts are.

But, well, you know the story.  Jesus’ amnesia of the heart was well intact even then, Beloved, even as his heart stopped beating, because his heart, you see, seems to have forgotten it was dead after a few days, and burst forth, alive and redeemed, sloughing off the curse, dragging all of us and our confused, vulnerable, amnesia-ridden hearts into new life and resurrection glory along with him.

Broken and beautiful, spiritually confused, Beloved people: God did not come to condemn the world…God’s heart seems conveniently to forget condemnation…but only to redeem and resurrect and give grace upon grace.

And I don’t know about you, but I long to look at the world through those glasses today.





It’s 4am

<If you’re looking at this at 4am, you may want to listen to it.  Click here to do that>

Are you ready?

artworks-000177943512-hjcaoi-t500x500Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

It’s 4am

If you made bread out of stones

The world would be fed, Lord.

But then, of course, we’d never learn to share.

If you sent your angels to carry us,

We’d all feel safe

But then, of course, we’d never take care of each other.

If you ruled with power over everything there would be order

But then, of course, we’d never learn to order ourselves well.

Keep doing what you do, Lord,

And we’ll do our best to follow.


The Wall Street Journal had an article this week noting that 4am is the most productive hour of the day.  Tim Cook, Michelle Obama, world travelers, not to mention my wife’s grandfather, all took to getting up at this hour.

Alvin, Rhonda’s grandfather, was a farmer. I remember coming to the breakfast table one morning the year we were married when he looked at me and said, “I thought you were going to sleep all day!”  It was 8am.

4am is the most productive time, the article contends, because it is the time of fewest distractions.

Lent is the 4am of the church year.  Lent is the time when we strip away most everything and focus on simple things: prayer, fasting, contemplation, and the cross.  It is not a chance to renew your New Year’s Resolution as some are in the habit of doing.  I do not think that God really cares if you give up bread or take on more exercise.  As I noted to someone this week, you do not need Lent to be a better human or learn self-discipline.

We need Lent so that we learn to strip it all away and rely on grace in wilderness times.

In fact, we need to learn it so much, that like those First Nation peoples who walked this land long before us, we thrust ourselves into the wilderness intentionally, trusting that this process, if done mindfully, will make us better followers of the wandering Rabbi who walked the wilderness his whole ministry.

There are a lot of distractions for the Christian, many of them coming from within the flock.  It’s no secret that I was disillusioned with the church for a good while, and in some ways I’ve never regained any illusions for it though I’m certain I cannot grow spiritually without it.  I want to think that being a Christian meant following the crucified and risen one, relying on forgiveness and grace and love, and passing those things out in his name like it is going out of style.

But today it sometimes feels like it’s more about bumper stickers and voting and polemical billboards.  If you want to catch a glimpse of those, just drive 40 anywhere between Asheville and Wilmington.  Today it sometimes feels like it’s more about wearing a cross around your neck rather than having a cross-shaped life.

You know, that wickedly funny TV show Arrested Development has this great episode where the daughter, Maeby (that’s her name) decides she’s going to be a Christian.  And she asks her uncle Michael, “Hey, where can I get one of those necklaces with the “T” on it?”  And Michael says, “Uhm, that’s a cross…”  She responds, “Across from where?”

The humorist in me loves that play on words, and I’m going to use it and twist it for a minute, because I really do think that Lent is that time where we all, in the darkness, like 4am darkness, stare at this tool for destruction now worn as a tool of redemption and ponder this question, “A cross from where?”

And so we follow Jesus, just like we did this morning, to these points along the journey that help flesh out why his flesh hung on this cross, and where it came from.

And today we are confronted with the fact that the cross came in part from Jesus’ refusal to play a part in the power games of the world, both religious and secular.

Jesus would not, famished as he was, turn stones into bread.  His own needs would take second fiddle to the greater purpose of his life.

Jesus would not, vulnerable as he was, call down the angels to rescue him in times of trouble.  Jesus would give up the need to be safe in order to be with the people God was calling him to save, literally hanging with the thief on his right and left, even as one of them echoed Satan in telling him to call down help from heaven to save them.  Jesus would save us by going through death with us, not by floating above it.  And Jesus would not be coerced into proving God’s power so that everyone could see, otherwise why bother with faith at all?

Finally, Jesus would not, weak as he was, rule by domination.  C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has this wonderful line where the demon Screwtape tells his underling Wormwood that God, “cannot ravish, but only woo.”  That is, God falls in love, God doesn’t force us to love.

This is where the cross comes from: from Jesus refusing to play the games that the world has set up as systems to play.

And Lent provides us this sneak peek into this work of Jesus, but then, in the 4am darkness, calls us to undistracted contemplation of it.  Where and how do we give in to these games today?

In big and small ways I’ve felt that this week I’ve given in to the games the world plays, from my own inability to be patient with my children who are acting just as children act, to watching that young 13 year old cry as her father was taken away by immigration agents while he was taking her to school.  Of course I don’t know the whole story there, and none of us do.  But it is certainly clear that we ravish more than woo in dealing with one another.

Forgive us, Lord. We don’t know what we’re doing.  And I feel so helpless in these situations: a failed parent and a confused Christian.  Truly I need the grace of God in the wilderness that is both childrearing and citizenship.

And that’s another thing…what keeps you up until 4am in the morning?  A lot of times our undistracted moments seem to lead into our anxieties, our worries, our failures.  Our 4am moments, at least in my experience, have been less productive and more problematic, as I think back on the ways I care too much, care too little, love too much, or not at all.

This is another gift that Lent gives us, Beloved.  For in taking a look at where the cross comes from, we can also begin to learn to see it in place of those things.

In place of our failures: the grace of God.  In place of our anxieties: the peace of God.  In place of the ways we hurt others and ourselves: the cross of God who reminds us that everything can be redeemed.

Everything.  All of our ravenous ways.

It is for these moments that we learn the true power of the cross.  For while we seem to only ravish, God took the most ravenous tool of the time, the cross of death, and made it into a tool of redemption and forgiveness.

And if we follow along throughout Lent, if we walk the road 4am road long enough in these next 40 days, and if we take this time to watch and pray, not giving into the temptation to turn Lent into a renewal of our New Year’s resolutions, if we don’t give into the temptation to take the secure path and just read happy-go-lucky inspirational quotes in this time when we’re thrust into the wilderness of a spiritual desert, if we resist the temptation to scoff at the invitation to be critical of our preconceived assumptions about what it means to be Christian in a world that seems intent on marketing Christianity instead of being marked by Christ…well…

Then perhaps we’ll see just where this cross is truly from, catching a glimpse God wooing us through this love story again this year, and eventually learn our ravenous ways no more.