Too Good (Not) To Be True

April 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Too Good (Not) To Be True” recorded in worship (11:06)
Easter Morning
Texts: Acts 10.34-43; 1 Cor 15.19-26; Lk 24.1-12

This is a story of good news; in fact, it is a story of the best news: Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)* But the truth is that we are highly skeptical when it comes to good news. Our experience of the world teaches us to distrust it. We live in a world where the phone is ringing off the hook with unbelievable deals, where Nigerian princes offer us millions of dollars via email, where politicians promise what they can never deliver. We are bombarded every day with news that is too good to be true.

Women at the Tomb, detail of stained glass window from Chartres Cathedral, ca 1150. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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Can’t You Smell It?

April 7, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Can’t You Smell It?” recorded in worship (12:32)
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Texts: 
Isa 43.16-21; Phil 3.4b-14; Jn 12.1-8

St. John doesn’t tell us much about Mary of Bethany. She and her sister Martha appear for the first time in chapter 11, right before this. What we do know is that these sisters are very well off. They can afford their own home, even though neither appears to be married; they can afford a private tomb for their brother, and they can afford a pound of perfume that would sell for 300 denarii. To put that in perspective, a denarius is the day’s wage for an average worker. In today’s dollars, that’s a day’s work at minimum wage, or about $96. 300 denarii, then, is nearly a year’s wages, meaning that this bottle of perfume is worth around $30,000.

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. From a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk). [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Think of the kind of person who can afford to spend $30,000 on a single bottle of perfume. That’s the kind of person that Mary is. She is high-society. She is upper crust. When John says that the sisters “gave a dinner” for Jesus, that means that they are throwing a party in his honor. Who do you imagine they invited to this little soiree? We might well assume that everybody who was anybody was there, the créme-de-la-créme of Judean society. It is in front of all these people that Mary walks into the room and kneels at Jesus’ feet. First she empties this entire bottle of $30,000 perfume over his feet, and then she lets down her hair, shakes it out, and wipes them with it.

I don’t think you get how scandalous this is. In that place at the time, loose hair was associated with loose women. Ladies wore their hair up, perhaps covered with a veil or a scarf. More than that, washing someone else’s feet is a job that is too demeaning even to make a slave do. Imagine walking into a room filled with billionaires, celebrities, and world leaders, and then stripping to your underwear and dancing like a chicken. That’s the level of humiliation that Mary is experiencing here—but she doesn’t care. For her, the room might as well be empty; the only person she is paying attention to is the one whose feet she is washing. Why is she debasing herself like this?

The answer, of course, is sitting next to Jesus. When her brother Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus to tell him he was dying. In chapter 10, Jesus had barely escaped Judea with his life; the people in the temple were ready to stone him before he escaped across the Jordan river. When he receives the sisters’ message in chapter 11, he risks his life to go to Bethany to see his friend Lazarus and raise him from the dead. That is the reason they “gave a dinner for him,” the reason why Mary humiliates herself in front of everyone: they are so overcome with gratitude to Jesus for what he has done, that even this extreme, extravagant act of devotion cannot begin to express their thanks—but it’s the only thing that can even come close.

And yet, today we also read the words of Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” He’s not talking about Jesus, of course, but about God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile in Babylon. The prophet intentionally recalls the exodus from Egypt—the parting of the sea and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army; the single most important event in Jewish history, the event that defined them as a people from that point forward—and tells them to forget it! To act like it never happened! Why? Because the new thing that God is doing—that is, the return from exile that God is setting in motion—is going to be so much greater.

Just when it seemed that things could not get any worse, God reminds the people that God has acted to save them before, and that God will act again; and when God does, it will completely eclipse everything God has done in the past; they won’t even be able to remember it. And indeed, the Psalmist writes of the return: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them,’ and we were glad indeed.”

But, in time, even the return from exile becomes old news. What happened 2500 years ago halfway across the globe is good news for us, sure, but hardly worth throwing a party over. And so, Isaiah’s words continue to echo in our ears: “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

As we read Isaiah’s prophecy, we think not of the exile and return, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been taught since we were small that, with his death, Jesus forgives our sins and saves us from death. And were that all that his death and resurrection meant, that would be worth giving a dinner for. For freeing us from the weight of our sins here and now, for assuring us life in God’s presence forever, it would be well worth a $30,000 bottle of perfume and letting down our hair in front of anyone and everyone to wash his feet. For bringing the good news of God’s forgiveness and opening the way to eternal life, each and every one of us might be ready to do anything, to give anything, to show our undying gratitude to the one who saves us. In our gratitude, we might almost forget that, in order to do those things, God doesn’t require a death—any death.

“Lamentation,” by Govaert Flinck, 1615-1660. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Even before the people in the temple picked up stones to kill him, Jesus proclaimed that he had come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Long before Jesus became human, long even before Isaiah and the exile, God has always been merciful and forgiving. Even back in the wilderness outside of Egypt, as Moses received the 10 commandments, he sang, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

As if the forgiveness and life God has always given were not enough, Jesus came to bring something much, much greater. “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

We do not continue to gather every week to worship Jesus in gratitude for what he has done, but in gratitude for what God is about to do; we gather in hope and expectation of the great new thing that has already begun to sprout forth in him: not just in his resurrection, not just in his death, but in his entire life among us. We worship Jesus because he is the in-breaking, the first-fruits, the down payment of God eternal reign of justice and peace. He is the first glimpse of eternity in God’s world. He is, in John’s words, the Light of the World; or if you prefer Luke, the dawn from on high that breaks upon us, guiding our feet into the way of peace. He is the new thing, the new shoot springing forth out of the loamy earth. Do you not perceive it?

Jesus didn’t come to die so that we don’t have to; he came to call us out of our tombs, to live so that we might also live in him. He is himself what life is like in God’s presence. His life—including his death and resurrection—offer us an alternative to our sinful existence enslaved to the many idols that compete for our worship. He comes to be the first domino set up to point all the rest of us in God’s direction. He is the incarnate promise of God’s healing of creation: the Word of God made flesh.

During Lent, we focus on repentance; but repentance isn’t about feeling contrite or even necessarily ‘trying to do better.’ Repentance is fundamentally about living a life defined by gratitude for what God is already doing, rather than one defined by guilt or fear or desire. It’s about living our whole lives like Mary did in that moment: forgetting what the rest of the world says is important or proper or decent and instead thinking only about our love for Christ and the world that Christ loves.

John writes that the fragrance of Mary’s action “filled the whole house.” What he didn’t write is that, since people didn’t bathe regularly and since Mary had used an entire pound of perfume, it probably would have taken days or even weeks to wear off. That means that at Calvary, in the midst of the ripe odor of unwashed bodies, the pungent musk of sweat, and the flat, metallic smell of blood in the dirt, there was also the fragrance of pure nard—the smell of one woman’s immense gratitude.

Our own love and thanks may seem insignificant, but like Mary’s simple act, this gratitude fills this entire dark and ugly world, making it just a little more beautiful. But it’s not just about beauty; that perfume of thankfulness in the midst of the sin and death that seem so invincible foreshadows what is coming. “See,” God says, “I am about to do a new thing. Even now it springs forth. Can’t you smell it?”

The Fig Tree and Óscar Romero

March 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Fig Tree and Oscar Romero” recorded in worship (13:12)
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
Texts: Isa 55.1-9; 1 Cor 10.1-13; Lk 13.1-9

I want to tell you the story of a man named Óscar Romero. Some of you may know his name, some may not. Óscar was born in 1917 in El Salvador. He was a Catholic priest, the archbishop, in fact, of San Salvador. Since the country had been granted independence from Spain in 1821, the power and wealth of the country had been slowly accumulating in the hands of a relatively few elite families. Over time, tensions grew, and by the 70s, Marxism had gained popularity among disaffected Salvadorans and the government was facing growing resistance. Caught in the middle of the conflict between Communist guerrillas and the army were hundreds of thousands of poor, especially rural, Salvadorans.

Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez in 1978. [Public Domain]

In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why El Salvador had the problems it does. As the wealthy elites took steps to consolidate their power, and as the guerrillas began organizing in desperation to resist the oppression of the government with violence, it is no surprise they were heading for disaster. That’s what Jesus is saying today. His warnings about who will perish and his parable about the fig tree may sound like threats of God’s punishment for those who refuse to repent, but it’s not that at all. Jesus is looking at the situation of his own time—the occupation of the Roman empire, the violent resistance from armed groups, the political machinations of the religious leaders, the classist separation of Jewish society, the oppression of the poor—and he is delivering a warning: this path does not lead anywhere good. Turn away from violence, from wealth, from the love of power, and live.

In 1977, Óscar was appointed to be archbishop. With his conservative reputation, his appointment was welcomed by the government, but many progressives in the Church feared that he would lack a commitment to serving the poor of the country. However, before becoming archbishop, Óscar had served as the bishop of a poor, rural diocese; he had learned throughout his life and career to care deeply for all people, especially the poor and marginalized.

This concern compelled him to speak out against injustices committed by both the rebel guerrillas and the government. He became immensely popular among the people of El Salvador offering hope by standing up to pressure and persecution from both sides. In his sermons, he preached openly about what was happening in the country, listing the names of people who had been tortured, murdered, or “disappeared.” Despite increasing pressure from the government and threats to his life, he persisted in telling the truth. Even as friends and colleagues were arrested or assassinated, he continued to speak out for the voiceless, appealing to soldiers and guerrillas alike as Salvadorans, as Christians, and as human beings; calling on them to end the bloodshed.

Óscar knew that his work was dangerous. Though he never picked a side or picked up a weapon, he knew he was a target for both the army and the guerrillas. In 1977, a fellow priest and personal friend of Óscar’s named Rutilio Grande was assassinated. He had been working with the poor of El Salvador and speaking out against the government’s persecution of priests. Óscar later said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”

This is the irony of following Jesus. Although he comes to offer abundant life, so often those who follow him face death. Óscar faced a choice. He could have remained silent; he could have protected his own life and quietly done what he could for a few people, but instead he chose to speak out, to bring international attention to the oppression of the government and the brutal violence of the rebels, to call for peace amidst war. He chose to work for change and give the poor, frightened people of El Salvador hope. He chose the way of Christ. St. Paul writes that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We often boil this down to a theologically sketchy aphorism: “God won’t give you more than you can handle;” but that’s not what Paul is saying. He’s saying that when the world does give you more than you can handle, God always gives us a way out; Óscar ’s way out was the cross.

When faced with a hopeless situation—to save himself or to work to save others—Óscar Romero found his way out was in knowing that, whether he lived or died, God would continue his work; that he was planting a seed, and though he may not see it sprout, God would cause it to bear fruit. That hope gave him the courage to face his own hour of trial. That hope is what allowed him to continue to follow Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting in the promise of salvation—not only for himself, but for all Salvadorans, and for all people.

In Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, the work of God is most evident not in the vineyard owner who commands the removal of the barren tree, but in the gardener, who works to dig around the roots and spread fertilizer. The cross is the implement with which Christ digs around our roots; the cross is the manure which he spreads on them. We cannot “choose” to be fruitful, we cannot “try” to be more fertile. We are what we are; and by the grace and the labor of God in Christ, we are slowly being nurtured and built up so that we can be more fully who we have already been created to be.

During the season of Lent, we are called to trust the process—the pruning, the digging, the manure spreading—all of it; to trust that as slow as the progress may be, God is making us into the people—into the world—God wants us to be; and that creating is being done in the way of the cross: the way of self-sacrifice, the way of faithfulness, the way of love. The temptation is always to find other ways to bring the world we want to see; to use power and influence and legislation or guns and bombs to bring about the kind of peace we want. We are tempted to resist Jesus’ call to the cross and instead seek to establish our own kingdom.

When facing his own test, Óscar did not take the way of silence and complicity, nor did he take the way of violence. Instead, he chose the way of the cross. On the evening of March 24, 1980—39 years ago today—he celebrated Mass at a small chapel at a church-run hospital. As he finished his sermon, a red automobile came to a stop on the street in front of the chapel. Óscar stepped away from the lectern, and took a few steps to stand at the center of the altar. A gunman emerged from the vehicle, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired. The bullet struck Óscar in the heart, and the vehicle sped off. He died in front of the altar.

We remember Óscar Romero today not because he held fast to his principles. We don’t honor his memory because he was such an upright man. He was not canonized by the Church because of how good he was—he was canonized because of how good God is. We remember Óscar today because he showed that to us. He gave his life not because it was the “right thing to do,” but because Christ had dug around his roots and spread the fertilizer; because in Christ Óscar had experienced the love and the grace of God so fully that he dripped with it, that it flowed out of him.

He loved the poor, the oppressed and the disappeared so much that he put his own safety second to theirs. He called out injustice not because he hated the oppressors, but because he loved them, wanted them to see the destruction they were bringing upon themselves and their own people and to repent. We remember him today because he was a man who had been truly freed from sin and death by the love and the hope of the cross; and his story gives us hope for our own stories.

The God we see revealed in Jesus and in Óscar is not a God who is patiently waiting to punish sinners, but rather a God who is working tirelessly to save them. Jesus gave his life in service to the gospel, in service to proclaiming the good news of God’s saving love to a world in that is slowly strangling itself. The forces of sin and death that tear us apart and pit us against one another feed off fear and despair; but Jesus offers us hope: hope for a better future, hope for a world freed from death.

It was this hope that moved Óscar to be the voice of the voiceless, to offer his own life in service to the gospel. And although that life was taken from him, cut short by an assassin’s bullet, through the power of Christ and his gospel, Óscar’s life was not ended, but continues. The seeds he planted are still growing—in El Salvador, in the Church, and in us. The cross is the hoe and the fertilizer that gives those seeds what they need to flourish.

This is good news for us because when we are frightened or appalled by what happens around us, Christ reminds us—with the help of saints like Óscar—that God is at work, saving us from the power of sin. God isn’t threatening to cut you down if you don’t bear fruit; instead, God is patiently cultivating and nurturing you to be an instrument of God’s salvation. God is constantly at work, shaping this world into what God has always intended it to be, one person—one life—at a time.

There are, of course, people who resist this inevitable salvation of God; all of us sometimes resist Jesus’ call to the way of the cross, seeking our own paths instead; but Jesus reminds us that those paths lead only to destruction. He reminds us that God is patiently, lovingly calling us back, that God is always shaping us into people of Christ, people of the cross.

Salvadorans remember Óscar Romero. Photo: EFE

Saints are not extraordinary people who have some superhuman ability to follow Jesus, they are people like you and me with whom God has done extraordinary things. We remember Óscar Romero today as one of the many who show us God’s boundless love and grace and patience as God continues to grow each and every one of us into the people that God has created us to be.

In The Wilderness

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “In The Wilderness” recorded in worship (12:15)
First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Texts: Deut 26.1-11; Rom 10.8-13; Lk 4.1-13

All three synoptic gospels record that, before he began his public ministry, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. That testing is an important part of his preparation for his ministry; it during his time in the wilderness that Jesus is made ready for everything the he is about to face.

The Church takes its cue from these gospel stories, setting aside this season of Lent as a time for Christians to be prepared as Jesus was. In a culture that somewhat undervalues the spiritual and the mystical in favor of the concrete and observable, we have lost some of our appreciation for the spiritual disciplines of Lent. If we fast at all, usually it is to give up small things that are relatively easy to do without, like chocolate or caffeine. Read more…

Smeared With Ash

March 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday
Texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; 2 Cor 5.20b-6.10; Matt 6.1-6, 16-21

For centuries, the Church has begun its Lenten journey smeared with ash hearing the words spoken to Adam as he was cast out of the garden: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are a symbol of repentance, of recognizing the guilt of our own sins and our complicity with the evil systems of the world around us, but they are also a potent reminder of our own mortality. The ash in this bowl is made of the same stuff we are. Both it and us are merely different arrangements of carbon atoms with various minerals peppered throughout. It is humbling to be covering our foreheads with the powdered essence of our future: dust upon dust.

We do this for many reasons, but one of them is to be reminded that while we are surrounded by dust—while we even are dust—there is something that transcends the dust and ashes of the world we have created for ourselves. We sometimes forget that. In our preoccupation with daily life, we become so caught up in our own plans, our own desires, our own comfort and convenience, that we forget that all the appetites we strive to placate are living on a diet of dust. The money we slave away to earn and carefully save for ourselves, the titles and degrees and honors we yearn for, the people we seek to impress or persuade, the control we wish we could wield—all of it is dust, temporarily arranged in a pleasing pattern. Read more…

Time to Wake Up

February 17, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Time to Wake Up” recorded in worship (13:34)
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Texts: Jer 17.5-10; 1 Cor 15.12-26; Lk 6.17-26

What do you see when you look at this picture? Chances are, whatever you see first is what you will see every time you look at it; but this is an optical illusion. There are actually two pictures here. How many of you see a young lady? How many see an old woman? How many of you, knowing what else is there, are now able to see what you didn’t see the first time? Read more…

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany 2019

February 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Greetings from snowy Gig Harbor! We cancelled our church services this weekend at Agnus Dei due to Snowpocalypse 2019, so there is no sermon to post. Although it was not a tremendous snowstorm by Midwestern standards, the fact that there are very few snowplows and not many people own snow shovels have made it a fairly serious event here.

However, even though the church was dark and empty, worship continued as scheduled. We worshiped online with everybody tucked snugly into their own homes. I posted prayers, discussion prompts for the scripture readings, and even YouTube videos of our hymns so that we could enjoy one another’s company, meditate on the Word and grow in faith all from the comfort of our own homes.

This digital worship all took place on our congregation’s Facebook page, so the posts are still there. If you would like to see what this digital worship looked like, you can check out the page for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/ADLCGigHarbor/

Depending on when you visit, you may have to scroll down to see it. Look for Feb 10, 2019.

Additionally, a few things have changed at Agnus Dei in the past months. My wife and copastor, Stephanie, resigned at the end of last summer in order to pursue a career in elementary education. I was a solo pastor again for a few months until we brought on an interim associate pastor in December. She currently preaches every other week, which is why my posts are more spread out again. We hope to have a new associate pastor sometime this spring.

Blessings to you all this winter!

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