New parables?

My task this week is to tackle some of those most mysterious teachings of Jesus that we usually call parables. In particular, parables about what the author of Matthew’s gospel calls the Kingdom of God Heaven.

Why ‘Heaven’ instead of ‘God’? Most likely the author was Jewish or was writing for a Jewish audience or was otherwise strongly influenced by Jewish mores which preclude naming God. What’s more interesting (at least to me) are the implications of that language choice on us contemporary hearers…that’s some of what we’ll get into on Sunday with a sermon I call “Word Search.”


I also hope to get into what we might (perhaps arrogantly?) call new parables of this Kingdom of God Heaven thing. Various verses from Matthew 13, our text for this week, offer five different examples Jesus used to describe this Kingdom. I want to add a few more. But sermons are fluid (at least as I prepare and present them), influenced by, to name a few, news, events, timing, congregational responses (or lack thereof), and – hopefully – the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. I might not end up saying what I think I will say. Or I might screw up and forget something. Or I might only tell part of a story. Or I might tell it badly. Or…??

In hopes that this will enhance your experience of, and participation in, Sunday’s message, I offer these stories for your perusal. Stories I intend to reference on Sunday as ways God’s Spirit of Life is at work in, with, and among us. Stories that might inspire you to find out about even more. Stories that might inspire you to notice the Spirit at work. Stories that might encourage you to tell your own story…and maybe even to tell it this week.

Remember a couple of months ago we became aware of Dr. Meriam Ibrahim’s story? We added our voices to those speaking out for her release from a death sentence. This week Pope Francis hosted her and her family at the Vatican.

A Tumblr blog using “collective life experience to be a safe haven for kids who need it?” Yep, it’s a real thing. And it is just so, so important.

Finally, a city chooses love and justice over short-sighted selfishness. Love Wins, indeed.

Click, read, repeat. Then comment here with reactions, or better yet, your own stories of the Life of God in the world.

Giving Up Fear for Lent

That’s what we exploring at our next evening worship experiment this Sunday, March 4 at 5:00pm. Hope you’ll join us!

First, a short video to get us thinking:

What do you think of that?
Do you sometimes (always?!?) hide your true self?
What masks do you wear?

How does being in church affect those masks?

It seems to me we tend to hide our truest selves in church. That shouldn’t be so, church should be the one place we are most free and able to be real. Church should be a place where it’s ok not to be ok. What barriers keep that from being the case? What do we fear that keeps that from happening? How do we break down those barriers to honesty?

Consider some scripture: Gospel of John: Chapter 21. Yes, I know this is kind of a lot to read. But it is such a fascinating, weird, funny, challenging story. And I see a whole lot of unmasking going on. This is from the version called The Voice.

1There was one other time when Jesus appeared to the disciples—this time by the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: 2Simon Peter, Thomas (the Twin), Nathanael (the Galilean from Cana), the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.

Simon Peter (to disciples): 3I am going fishing.
Disciples: Then we will come with you.

They went out in the boat and caught nothing through the night. 4As day was breaking, Jesus was standing on the beach; but they did not know it was Jesus.

Jesus: 5My sons, you haven’t caught any fish, have you?
Disciples: No.
Jesus: 6Throw your net on the starboard side of the boat, and your net will find the fish.

They did what He said, and suddenly they could not lift their net because of the massive weight of the fish that filled it. 7The disciple loved by Jesus turned to Peter and said:

Beloved Disciple: It is the Lord.

Immediately, when Simon Peter heard these words, he threw on his shirt (which he would take off while he was working) and dove into the sea. 8The rest of the disciples followed him, bringing in the boat and dragging in their net full of fish. They were close to the shore, fishing only about 100 yards out. 9When they arrived on shore, they saw a charcoal fire laid with fish on the grill. He had bread too.

Jesus (to disciples): 10Bring some of the fish you just caught.

11Simon Peter went back to the boat to unload the fish from the net. He pulled 153 large fish from the net. Despite the number of the fish, the net held without a tear.

Jesus: 12Come, and join Me for breakfast.

Not one of the disciples dared to ask, “Who are You?” They knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus took the bread and gave it to each of them, and then He did the same with the fish. 14This was the third time the disciples had seen Jesus since His death and resurrection. 15They finished eating breakfast.

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these other things?
Simon Peter: Yes, Lord. You know that I love You.
Jesus: Take care of My lambs.

16Jesus asked him a second time . . .

Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love Me?
Simon Peter: Yes, Lord. You must surely know that I love You.
Jesus: Shepherd My sheep.
17(for the third time) Simon, son of John, do you love Me?

Peter was hurt because He asked him the same question a third time, “Do you love Me?”

Simon Peter: Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.
Jesus: Look after My sheep. 18I tell you the truth: when you were younger, you would pick up and go wherever you pleased; but when you grow old, someone else will help you and take you places you do not want to go.
19Jesus said all this as an indicator of the nature of Peter’s death, which would glorify God. After this conversation, Jesus said,

Jesus: Follow Me!

The story begins with the disciples oddly unmasked. They’ve apparently seen Resurrected Jesus twice now, yet as this story begins they are still dejected, despondent, depressed. Maybe they still don’t believe Jesus is really alive. Maybe they just miss Jesus so much that they don’t know what to do.

Whatever the reason, in this state they return to what they know: fishing.
But out on the lake, these professional fishermen can’t catch a thing. Maybe their hearts aren’t in it, maybe they’re just going through the motions as they wade through their emotions.

Then Jesus appears acting in ways we’ve come to expect from him. The disciples have witnessed Jesus like this before: telling them where to fish and being right. Hosting a meal. Breaking bread and sharing it. Being mysterious. (“No one dared to ask, ‘who are you?’ b/c they knew it was Jesus” ??? What is that?! So strange.) You know, just Jesus being Jesus.

Then comes the big reveal. The climactic unmasking of Peter. Jesus strips away all pretense that everybody is ok by asking three times if Peter Simon loves him.

What might it mean that Jesus calls him Simon here rather than Peter? After all, Jesus is the one who gave him the name ‘Peter.’ Why would Jesus deliberately not use ‘Peter’ here?

Perhaps because Jesus knew Simon needed to remove his Peter mask – the mask that allowed him to pretend – to himself and the other disciples – that he was still the leader. The mask that allowed him to pretend he’d never betrayed Jesus. Once Simon was able to remove that mask, once he was able to face Jesus and affirm him three times, then he could truly become Peter again. (I was going to write “look Jesus in the eyes”, but I suspect he wasn’t really able to do that. Maybe by the third time. But even then, only with tears clouding his vision.)

Now, what about us? What masks do you wear?

How might we be the church in such a way that would allow us to remove those masks?

How might we be the church in such a way that would go beyond ‘allowing’ and actually encourage us to remove those masks?

How might we be the church in such a way that would move beyond both ‘allowing’ and ‘encouraging’ and actually make removing our masks the only logical, reasonable, faithful way to be together?

Perhaps put differently (and paraphrasing Peter Rollins), how might we be the church in such a way that “acknowledges our brokenness, frailty, and heresy,” rather than seeing our brokenness, frailty and heresy as something to reject, mourn over, or attempt to overcome?

Sermonating for Sunday: Gleeful Outsiders?

The texts for this week (we almost always follow the lectionary) create an odd juxtaposition of themes. Matthew 22:1-14 seems, at least at first glance, to be yet another affirmation that God is capricious tyrant, a violent bastard with a terrible temper. Meanwhile, over in Philippians 4:1-9, Paul gently and beautifully reminds us to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!”

How the hell do we pull off this mashup? I’m going to try it by pondering the possibility of “Gleeful Outsiders?”. (And, yeah, everybody’s favorite fictional show choir is auditioning for the part of pop culture reference in the sermon.)

Matthew offers a scary and violent parable that is hard to read, that makes us want to close our eyes and skip to the next chapter. Yet, as Walter Wink writes, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.”

So if we can force ourselves to consider it, this parable raises questions such as: What – and when – is this Kingdom of Heaven? Just who is being cast out? Where does all this leave us, today’s hearers of this tale?

Also shaping my thoughts this week is the engaging discussion of the Matthew passage happening at The Hardest Question.

Sallie McFague offers deep analysis of parables. A taste:

Just as the parable does not illustrate ideas better stated nonparabolically, and so become dispensable, so Jesus is not merely an illustration for the kingdom which can be more adequately grasped apart from him — say in mystic encounters or in abstract formulations. His task was not to impart correct concepts about the kingdom but to make it possible for men to respond to it. . . . He not only tells shocking stories but leads a shocking life toward a shocking end. Just as the parables have familiar elements in unfamiliar plots, so Jesus’ life has familiar features of Palestinian life in startling juxtaposition.

What do you think? How might this parable speak to our condition today?

Pondering Pentecost

As I continue to prepare my sermon for tomorrow’s worship – it’s Pentecost Sunday! – I seem to have a lot of different ideas swirling through my head. So I thought I would share them with you. Welcome to the chaos that is my brain function!

1. First of all there’s the scripture for the week: Acts 2:1-21.  At the Festival of Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit births the church in the followers of Jesus. The Spirit is made known and she is awesome & powerful!

2. Turning as I often do to The Hardest Question, finds the Rev. Russell Rathbun musing: “The church is born fifty days after the resurrection, (pentecost means “fifty”), which is also the gestation period of crocodiles, goats and green beans. I don’t think too much significance should be drawn from that, but there might be something there.”

Ok, I don’t really know what that means or has to do with Pentecost, but it sure is intriguing, no?

3. This comes, of all places, from an email ad from Paraclete Press (and really, could there be a better source for the coming of God’s Holy Spirit than Paraclete Press?!?)
“What if humanity came together in the light & spirit poured out at Pentecost? …In such a society all people would find their place, neither lost in the collective, nor alienated and alone outside of it. This ideal requires urgency in the age of globalization. Can we live together and touch the Divine?” – Fr. Seraphim Sigrist, A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East

4. Pentecost as a disco ball! These thoughts from Steve Taylor via Clayfire Curator:

I shone a red spotlight on a rotating mirror ball.
So not only is the rock on fire, but red light reflects off the mirror ball.
And so as the mirror ball rotates, little red lights move all over the church, all over people.

And at the end of the OT, a prophet named Joel has a dream. That one day every person, old and young, men and woman, can have the Spirit.
And at Pentecost, the dream of Joel becomes real. The spirit falls on everyone in the church.
No longer do just special people get to lit the pumice rock. Now the red light of the mirrorball falls on everyone. Everyone has the Spirit.

(Read more here  Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial)

5. Over on Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog, Julie Clawson taught me a new word: acedia

My first thought was, “We own a vehicle that’s named after spiritual apathy? How the hell did I let that happen?!?” But then I realized that’s Acadia. Whew! Clawson writes:

It’s not that I don’t see tremendous value in contemplation or think that we all need to practice self-care, but that perhaps we need to alter the most basic ways we view ourselves in the world. We are not rugged individuals dependant on getting our own relationship with God right; we are members of the body of Christ, existing in relationship with God and others at all times. Our gifts are meant to be shared eucharistically in community. It is a way of living that the philosophy of Ubuntu that Desmond Tutu writes about refers to. It is living, not for oneself, but as a member of a community where one is “open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

The last thing the American church needs are more messages telling us to focus on ourselves. Guilt trips and shoulds don’t help much either, for our “it’s all about me” mentality knows how to resist anything that makes demands on our self. It will take a drastic change in mindset to move us past our “I think, therefore I don’t give a crap about anyone but myself” operating system. I think for the church to not only get over this plague of acedia, but to survive it, we must start thinking communally. As Ubuntu thought states, “I am because we are.” We belong to God which means we belong to each other. Embracing that relational identity may perhaps be our only hope.

6. Via Knightopia, Donald Miller tells us we must know our own story.

If you want to change yourself, your community, or the world, you must first understand the power of story. And the most powerful stories aren’t on television or at the movies, rather, they are the stories we tell to each other in the way we live our lives. If you understand what makes a good story, you understand what makes a good life.

Your story flows out of who you are, not who you ought to be. If you don’t know your own story, you are lost.

7. And just what is our story? On the United Methodist Worship blog, Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson reminds us that God is saving and redeeming the whole creation, not just human beings! Thus we must consider our story in the midst of the whole of God’s story:

N.T. Wright, with much of historical Christianity, is clear about this: God’s goal for all things will be accomplished not by removing what is salvageable from “this present darkness” into some ethereal state, but rather by a new, physical creation in which sin and death are no more.
Resurrection of individuals leaves us hoping for a solely human future. What of the rest of the created order? Indeed, how can humans even be humans apart from our connections with the environment and the other creatures with whom we live and move and have our being? If bodily resurrection is proclaimed in our services without sufficient attention to new creation, can we be said to be proclaiming bodily resurrection at all?

It can help Christians see our calling to work for God’s kingdom both in the here-and-now as well as in the age to come.  And it gives a much-needed correction to our habit of seeing religion, faith, and death in terms of the individual rather than in terms of God’s entire cosmos.

8. and of course, playing behind everything…the soundtrack to my life.

So, who’s ready for an hour-long sermon? Yeah, neither am I, actually. Guess I’ve got some trimming/sorting/discerning to do!

What jumps out at you from these resources? What other Pentecost thoughts have you?

Sunday’s coming

16th century Russian icon of the Descent into ...
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It’s Saturday night. That means you’ve made it through Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. For us pastor types it also means it will soon be time to share cogent, coherent thoughts in the form of an Easter Sunday sermon! That’s the mounting pressure, anxiety-inducing meaning of “Sunday’s coming.”

If you’re still figuring out what to share tomorrow, let me (one last time) commend The Hardest Question to you. What is that all about?

It’s a blog done midrash style. It’s curator, Russell Rathbun, describes it like this:

Questioning the text is important, because the Bible is the witness to the Living Word of God. We are called into relationship with God through Jesus the Christ, The Word. Relationships, at their best, are dynamic, growing, deepening, revelatory, generative and transforming. A primary way we pursue relationship with the Living Word is through the study of scripture, so it must be taken seriously, approached with a robust confidence and a passionate vulnerability.

We ask the text the hardest questions because we can. It does not break, it is not offended, and it does not judge our desire for understanding. The ancient rabbis say that when we study the Bible we release God’s mercy into the world. It is important to question the text, because the world needs as much of God’s mercy as possible.

As I’ve written a couple of times, I’ve had the honor of being the guest blogger there this week providing thoughts on the Easter texts.

Easter. Resurrection. God demonstrating to the universe that death and oppression do not have the last word, but rather the last word belongs to God and that Word is Love and Life. And that’s the other meaning of “Sunday’s coming.” It’s the back half of the famous refrain, “It’s Friday, but…”

If you haven’t already, I’d love for you to click on over to The Hardest Question for Scooby-Doo and Temple of Doom references, some Easter eggs and to read what lead me to these hardest questions:

Regarding the Acts text: How am I subverting God’s subversion of exclusivity?

As for the Gospel text: Why is it still so hard for women to get equal pulpit time in so many churches?

How do you read?

“Frankenstein, a Mummy & Life After Life-After-Death”

No, I haven’t gone crazy (ok, crazier), I haven’t lost my calendar, and I don’t mistakenly think it’s Halloween…but I do find the stories in this week’s Lectionary texts from Ezekiel 37 and John 11 compellingly weird, if a tad macabre.









So the title of this post is also my sermon title for Sunday.

Questions I’ll consider:

  • Where have you experienced the “valley of dry bones” in your life?
  • What message(s) of hope sustained you in those times?
  • How might we engage both the reality of despair (such as that currently in Japan or Sudan or even on your block) and the hope of renewal presented in this week’s scriptures?

All are welcome! If you’re in the Chicago suburbs this Sunday, I’d love to have you worship with us at Woodridge United Methodist Church at 9:00 or 10:30 am.