Christ the King

DANIEL 7:9-10, 13-14
PSALM 93
REVELATION 1:4b-8
JOHN 18:33-37

On the feast of Christ the King in 2015, I was confirmed by the Bishop of St Albans, Alan Gregory Clayton Smith. What I did not know, nor could I was how profoundly it would change my life to have the Holy Spirit poured out on me in this unique way.

Sitting Down

DANIEL 12:1-3
PSALM 16
HEBREWS 10:11-25
MARK 13:1-8

Most of us do most of our work sitting down. As I write this now, I’m sitting. Generally when I stand up, my work is finished…or I’ve seen something shiny (and just between you and me, it’s generally the latter). Except maybe for the something shiny, the same’s likely true for you.

It wasn’t necessarily this way in the ancient Near East. Mostly, people stood to work and sat down when their work was finished.

In this week’s Epistle, the writer of Hebrews juxtaposes standing and sitting to communicate something profound about work ongoing and work completed. And in light of that reality, our proper response.

The Why Question

1 KINGS 17:8-16
PSALM 146
HEBREWS 9:24-28
MARK 12:38-44

A friend from the 80s, now a successful executive mentor, had a refrain: "Until you answer the why question, the cost is always too high.”

Simply put, why makes what meaningful.

Nearly anyone who reads this week’s Gospel lesson (The Widow’s Mite) can pretty quickly come up with the what (spoiler alert: sacrificial giving). That’s simple.

But what’s the why? Well, that’s the vital question, isn’t it?

Paying Attention

DEUTERONOMY 6:1-9
PSALM 119:1-8
HEBREWS 9:11-14
MARK 12:28-34

Things we hear all the time—even important things—can become so familiar we stop really paying attention. Think about the last time you were absorbed in what the flight attendant said just before takeoff.

There’s a vital part of Christian liturgy—28 words so important that Jesus said every other word in the Bible hangs from them—the church has repeated week after week almost without exception. Year after year. Decade after decade. For millennia.

Cue the Charlie Brown adult sound.

This week, though, we’re gonna pay attention.

The Miracle That Gets Us There

JEREMIAH 31:7-9
PSALM 126 
HEBREWS 7:23-28
MARK 10:46-52

Our Gospel Lessons this month have given us the sad story of a rich man who walks away from Jesus sad, and the strange story of James and John asking Jesus whether they can sit at his right and left hand. In these stories something is asked of Jesus which they, for some reason, cannot receive.

But this week Jesus will be asked a question which he can finally answer in the affirmative.

Yet the work he does for this person is not the end of Jesus’ ministry.

I suppose I have often thought that my needs ought to be met, but I do not consider how the answers to my prayers might fit with Jesus’ purpose for the salvation of all the world. Might it be that what I believe about what I need would change, if I kept in mind the direction I am headed?

Warts and All

ISAIAH 53:4-12
PSALM 91:9-16
HEBREWS 5:1-10
MARK 10:35-45

When Oliver Cromwell was presented with his official portrait in 1656, he angrily rejected it. Thinking it would please him, the court painter had omitted Cromwell’s unsightly facial warts.

“Take it away”, he demanded, “and paint me as I am, warts and all.”

In this week’s Gospel, Mark unabashedly paints Jesus’ disciples warts and all…bent by ambition and jealousy.

Why’d he do this? Mark had a very ancient (and biblical) way of understanding human nature, which actually aligns seamlessly with what Jesus went on to tell them about the upside-down nature of true greatness.

Blind Spot

AMOS 5:6-7, 10-15
PSALM 90:12-17
HEBREWS 4:12-16
MARK 10:17-31

The practical definition of a blind spot is simply, “something you don’t see.”

It’s often quite painful when a blind spot is exposed to us. In fact, it can be grievous. But once it’s been exposed and dealt with, the result can be quite life changing.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus lovingly exposes a blind spot in an exceptionally successful, powerful, and moral young man—just one thing that’s holding him back (though admittedly, it’s a big one).

But sadly, while its exposure grieves him, it doesn’t quite change him.

Common Ground

GENESIS 2:18-24
PSALM 8
HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12
MARK 10:2-16

Just last Sunday I was telling a visitor why I value preaching through the lectionary. I said something super cheery like, “I never have to dream up a topic or a passage, because they’re determined by the Church calendar and the cycle we’re in (“Year B” this year). I actually really like that.”

May have spoken too soon. Monday morning I read this week’s Gospel.
So, besides the level ground at the foot of the cross, you and I may have other common ground this week:

I don’t really want to preach this sermon...and I’m betting you don’t really want to hear it.

Reductio ad Absurdum

NUMBERS 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
PSALM 19:7-14
JAMES 5:13-20
MARK 9:38-50

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus seemingly offers a fairly extreme way to avoid wrongdoing.

Apparently, if you sufficiently dismember yourself, you won’t be able to take any wrong action. This is, at least, the logic by which Jesus reduces the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to the absurd.

In their view, the law could be satisfied, and thus goodness attained, if you simply avoided sinning. You’re “right” if you’ve done nothing “wrong.” You could keep from sinning if you simply eliminated the bodily parts that make sinful actions possible. You’d stay out of hell, but you’d roll into heaven a mutilated stump.

Ouch.

Living Gently within the Wisdom of the Cross

JEREMIAH 11:18-20
PSALM 54
JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8A
MARK 9:30-37

Living gently within the wisdom of Christ's cross and resurrection doesn't seem very dangerous, yet as we comprehend the face of our Lord amongst those who cannot offer us anything in return, nor even the satisfaction of being admired for our service, it may well be the case that we will show a world of vicious division and ambition that there is a God who loves them.

Not the God I Wanted

ISAIAH 50:4-9
PSALM 116:1-8
JAMES 3:1-12
MARK 8:27-38

A few days ago, a friend texted me a quote by author Richard Rohr, and I don’t like it: “The real places of spiritual transformation are solitude, loneliness, boredom, suffering, and fear. Things we want to avoid but where the good stuff always hides.”

I know this to be true, and that’s why I don’t like it. Candidly, this is not the God I wanted.

But I’m not alone. This is revealed in the answer to a pointed question Jesus asked in this week’s Gospel reading. It’s not the God Peter wanted either...but it is the God that is.

And the God that is is so much better.

You Are A Grain Of Wheat

DEUTERONOMY 4:1-2, 6-9
PSALM 15
JAMES 1:17-27
MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You are not a glass of wine. You are not the ripple of an echo. You have not yet forgotten your name, and your soul is not a chip from a star.

To Whom Shall We Go?

JOSHUA 24:1-2A,14-18
PSALM 34:15-22
EPHESIANS 6:10-20
JOHN 6:56-69

From the ongoing sexual abuse scandal once again rocking the Roman Catholic Church, forcing the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick; to the sexual abuse scandal at the prominent and influential Willow Creek Community Church, ousting Bill Hybels, his two pastoral successors, and the entire Board of Elders.

While Lauren and I were travelling earlier this week, the top story in the local news was of a parish Priest who’d stolen more than a quarter million dollars from his predominately poor congregation.

The angry, impassioned—and justifiable—responses of heartbroken and disillusioned parishioners have been really hard to see. In a lot of ways, many are asking the very question the Apostle Peter asked (and answered!) in this week’s Gospel reading.

How Should We Then Sing?

PROVERBS 9:1-6
PSALM 34:9-14
EPHESIANS 5:15-20
JOHN 6:51-58

Besides church, try to imagine any other times and places where you sit with a group of people you don’t know and sing. Where does that happen? Sometimes at a birthday party. Or you might stumble through Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. Or maybe during the seventh inning stretch if you’ve had a couple.

Imagine going to your favorite coffee shop, standing up, and saying, “Let’s just sing a few songs together!” I doubt you’d get much participation because culturally, today, it’s an odd thing to do.

However, in the seminal book, “Worship and the Early Church”, scholar Ralph Martin writes, “The Christian Church was born in song.” Singing together has always been seen as a vital part of Christian worship.

But why should we sing? And just as importantly, how? St. Paul gets at both in this week’s Epistle.

Tired of Understanding

1 KINGS 19:4-8
PSALM 34:1-8
EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2
JOHN 6:35, 41-51

I met an old friend for coffee last week, and he said something that saddened me. Mind you, this guy’s a veteran seminary professor, and the Executive Vice President of one of the largest Evangelical ministries in the US, if not the world.

“I’m just so tired,” he said, “of having to understand and explain everything. There’s no mystery left in my faith.”

This is true of much of the modern church, but it hasn’t always been so. The command of Jesus, after all, was “take and eat,” not “take and understand.”

Following Our Stomachs

EXODUS 16:2-4, 9-15
PSALM 78:23-29
EPHESIANS 4:1-16
JOHN 6:24-35

Some people might say they are 'spiritual but not religious'. I am under no illusions: I am certainly 'religious but not spiritual'. My countenance toward prayer and love hinges on my stomach. If I am satisfied I find love easy. When I am hungry, physically or otherwise, I do not love nearly so patiently. Being religious, I at least have a sense of when and how I should pray at a given time of the day or occasion.

Such a discipline also gives me a moment when I can remember that if I set aside my desires, just for a minute or two, I can be open to something more wondrous.

God has seen our impatient faith many times, on the way out of Egypt and beyond. The people of God tend to do as they are called when they know their faithfulness may fill their stomachs, not because it is right or something.

Jesus knows. And he is kind.

Parenthetical

2 KINGS 4:42-44
PSALM 145:10-19
EPHESIANS 3:14-21
JOHN 6:1-21

The vast majority of the long chapter of John 6 is dedicated to telling the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and after that, Jesus’ stunning exposition of its meaning.

But stuck right in the middle of those two things—five verses—almost parenthetically, Jesus walks on the water...a completely unrelated miracle.

Or at least that’s how it seems.

Jesus Has a Picnic?

JEREMIAH 23:1-6
PSALM 23
EPHESIANS 2:11-22
MARK 6:30-44

This week’s Gospel reading is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. For most, it’s basically a warm fuzzy: Jesus has a picnic. You can almost see everyone sitting on the lush green grass eating and laughing. You can almost imagine the red checkered tablecloths spread on the ground...

But don’t.

The textual and historical context tells us this is about something radically different: a revolution. Only one that’s totally unexpected, based on a shocking revolutionary act, and led by impossibly unqualified revolutionaries.

The Bite of Conscience

AMOS 7:7-15
PSALM 85:8-13
EPHESIANS 1:3-14
MARK 6:14-29

“If God is dead, anything is possible,” mused Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in 1880. but it was Friedrich Nietzsche who set himself to the task of showing what that meant in the real world. In 1887 he wrote his Genealogy of Morals, which is the best and clearest introduction to Nietzsche’s life project.

His project was largely to kill conscience or die trying. “The bite of conscience,” he wrote, “like the bite of a dog into a stone, is a stupidity.”

Conscience is a word that means “with knowledge”, and we all know its bite can really hurt. It’s that bite Herod Antipas got in the first few verses of this week’s Gospel reading. And it really hurt.