Sunday, March 26, 2006

We’ve been undertaking a strange practice during worship this Lenten Season—the ancient act of public confession. We are all sinners. But I doubt many of us really want to stand in front of the congregation and confess publicly the many ways we have missed the mark. And so this awkward practice of shared confession emerged in the early church. It is awkward because it is actually quite difficult to create a prayer of confession that all members present can recite honestly. The confession has to be generic to the point of blandness. After all, you shouldn’t be pressured to confess you have lied and cheated if you haven’t, in fact, lied and cheated. So we make do with generalities. We beat around the bush. We say in unison that we are sorry for what we have done, and for what we have left undone. It is up to us to silently fill in the details of our brokenness.

But the practice is awkward in a much deeper way than mere logistics. Even as Christian people, we don’t particularly care to air out our dirty laundry. We live in a culture that requires us to say that we are fine even when we are not. Public admission of brokenness doesn’t jive with the American spirit. We’re supposed to be strong, independent, and capable.

The practice of public confession threatens the lie that we are all fine. It gathers us all under one umbrella of repentance as we collectively confess the truth of our condition, which is often so very far from fine. We might think that since we’re not thieves and murderers we’re in the clear. But as human beings living in a ruptured Creation, we are given to sinfulness. In large and small ways alike, we turn from the ways of Jesus. We fail to love the way that God loves.

There has been a movement away from this talk of sin in the Christian Church. After all, we’re supposed to be developing healthy self-esteem, and having your preacher point out your sinfulness doesn’t exactly nourish the ego. But given that we follow a Christ who suffered death to bring new life, perhaps we should reconsider the inverted wisdom of the Christian faith.

The need for confession is confirmed by a strange little book that is currently a bestseller. It’s called PostSecret. Frank Warren, the organizer of the project, simply provides an address and the invitation to submit anonymous postcards revealing secrets. The postcards rush in by the hundreds each week as people pounce on this opportunity to confess their secrets.

Some of them are joyful, some of them are silly, but many more are devastating. People plead guilty to the pain that they have caused others. People bear witness to the pain that others have inflicted on them. The response to the book has been astounding. One reader who struggles with a compulsion to injure herself commented, “I have tons of secrets and i cant get them out. i have turned the pages of this book day in and day out, looking for a way to escape the fears inside me. when i reached the page about cutting, i bawled my eyes out. i knew i wasnt the only one who did it, but i wanted to know someone who knew how it felt. to know that someone had the courage to confess it to the world. i still cant escape my fears and hurt inside. i'm trying but your book has helped me tremendously, for i almost killed myself.”

I see a culture that is paralyzed by its need to present a good face to the world. I see too many people who are convinced that their mistakes make them unworthy of love, unworthy of life. I see men and women who are so blinded by their shame that they wrongly believe that they are alone in their brokenness. I see a world that is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, deadened by trespasses and sins.

We talk about sinfulness in the Christian church because we recognize that when we are caged by shame, we are separated by God. We refuse to believe that God loves us, because we believe we are unlovable. As Jesus explains to Nicodemus in the gospel of John, “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” When a man is flooded with feelings of guilt and remorse, he no longer simply believes that his actions were evil. He believes that he himself is evil, and he is so ashamed that he hides himself from the light that would expose him for who he truly is. He is terrified that a wrathful God will condemn him for his sinfulness, and so he simply burrows himself into a deeper darkness, ever further from the truth-bearing light of God.

The heart of our gospel lesson today is that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sinners need not go on the lam to avoid the punishment of an angry God. As it so happens, the One who knows how many hairs you have on your head isn’t actually out to condemn you for your failure to be a perfect replica of Christ.

Jesus explains his mission to Nicodemus not as a strict judge, denouncing humanity for its brokenness. Rather, he is the Savior, the liberator of a humankind that is trapped in a dreary cycle of sin and shame. “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.”

And this salvation from sin and shame we experience in Christ Jesus cannot be earned. No matter if you are a gossip or a felon, you are saved from that deadening cycle of sin and shame by grace through faith. John 3:16 is wildly famous for a good reason: it reminds us how ferociously God loves the world. God didn’t send his Holy Spirit to rest on Jesus on account of our good behavior. The world that God so-loved that he gave his only Son isn’t a perfect world. It isn’t the Kingdom of God. It is our messy, broken, sinful world that God loved enough to intervene in a radical way to draw us back into his eternal embrace.

It takes a force beyond ourselves to unlock the cage of sin and shame. It takes the grace to entrust ourselves to our loving Creator, who seeks not to condemn us but to release us from that dark and lifeless prison. Confession is not a guilt trip. Confession of sin allows us to be cleansed and made whole by our gracious and merciful God.

Some of you know that I rejected the Christian faith for a few years. Like many of my peers, once I became of age, I intended to never darken the doors of a sanctuary again. Even when my heart began to give into the quiet calls of the Holy Spirit to return to Christian community, I avoided traditional worship. I was afraid that one superficial hymn or one theologically sour sermon would turn me off for good. So I spent a year worshipping in a silent Quaker meeting. When I was called to be a youth minister in an Episcopal Church, I knew that meant I had to come to terms with traditional Christian liturgy.

I went to worship that first Sunday bracing myself. I was particularly nervous about the prayer of confession. Some of my beef with the Christian Church was its reputation for inspiring guilt, and the act of public confession seemed like an unnecessary tool for humiliation. What surprised me was that joining my voice with the voices around me in a shared confession of sin felt great. I realized that my heart had been tightly clenched with guilt, and confessing my sin didn’t add to the guilt but released me from it. I experienced forgiveness. I experienced the grace and mercy of our compassionate and passionate God, who meets us not with condemnation but with love.

The Disciples of Christ pastor, Marianne Scott, tells a story of the power of confession—and forgiveness—in her Indianapolis congregation, Eastgate Christian Church. Their building is situated in a wooded area, adjacent to a park and residential areas, and its location makes it especially vulnerable to vandalism. Sixteen years ago, the building was in fact broken into.

Many people believe—or prefer to believe—that robbers would shy away from sacred objects. But as the culprit ransacked the offices and sanctuary, he snatched the Chalice from the communion table. Of all the hurt and anger that ensued from that fiasco, nothing stung the congregation more than the loss of that beloved symbol of their connection with the living God.

Fifteen years later—last spring—a man in his 30s showed up for ten o’ clock worship. Midway through the service, he stood up and asked to share something with the congregation. And then he stood before them to confess that he had broken into their building those many years ago. He explained that he was deeply sorry for his actions, and repeatedly apologized. As he confessed, he produced the long-lost Chalice and returned it to the table. It was tarnished, but more worthy than ever to be transformed into the cup of salvation. That day, Reverend Scott blessed and poured the consecrated juice into that beat-up old Chalice instead of the shiny, well-kept replacement. After the closing hymn, the members of the congregation greeted the Judas who had betrayed them with open arms. They embraced him, and shook his hand, and marveled at the grace of his repentance.

Not every story of confession engenders such a beautiful expression of forgiveness and healing. The light burns our eyes after spending an afternoon in a movie theater; imagine how much more the light scalds the hearts of those who have cowered in the dark, away from light, away from truth, away from God. But no matter the depth and gravity of the confession, God greets us with the open arms of reconciliation.

By no merit of our own we are made alive together with Christ, re-created in Christ to be a gift to God’s beloved world. We cannot earn God’s love, not by the strength of our good deeds, and not even by the vulnerable confession of our bad deeds. All we can do is accept the liberating grace of the one who loves us so much he cannot bear to let us remain dead in our shame. All we can do is trust that our God is a God of love, not condemnation. All we can do, sisters and brothers, is believe.



Sunday, March 19, 2006

Last week in Valyermo, the other first-call pastors and I had the opportunity to hear a word from Tamara Nichols Rodenberg, the new dean of the Disciples Seminary Foundation. In addition to years of pastoral experience in the US, Tamara and her husband also spent about six years in Southern Africa as missionaries. I understand why mission nights at churches used to draw huge crowds: missionaries have stories to tell, stories that are infinitely more compelling than anything you could see on television. Missionaries tell stories of God’s creative and redeeming work in cultures drastically different than our own.

One of Tamara’s toughest barriers in South Africa and Swaziland was the matter of her gender. I get looks here in Southern California for being a female pastor; the communities in Southern Africa simply didn’t know what to do with her. European colonial customs and indigenous African customs were combined in ways that keep women vulnerable. According to the women’s movement Imbokodo, “In modern day South Africa, women are faced with a wide range of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, unemployment gender discrimination as well as poverty.” In addition to the gender issue, Tamara, who is white, worked in South Africa just a few years after the fall of apartheid. Tamara’s entire Southern African ministry was undertaken in the context of danger.

But the Spirit of God was upon her.

One day, Tamara and her husband attended a funeral of a man who had been active in a rural congregation. He was survived by his elderly wife. And in many poor, indigenous cultures, the widow of the deceased is considered dead as well. She has no right to property, and is likely to be mistreated by her in-laws and children.[1] The rituals of the community emphasize this. During the funeral of her husband, a woman cannot be seen. She is covered in heavy, black blankets, even during the heat of the day. She is shrouded and alone in her grief during the whole funeral.

Tamara watched as the blanketed woman moved to the body of her husband. She watched as a hand emerged from the covers to drop a fistful of dirt onto the coffin. She watched the heap of blankets shuffle back to her solitary seat.

And that’s when the Spirit of God intervened. Tamara knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was sending her under that blanket to share the pain of the woman underneath it.

She got up and dove under the heavy cloth before anyone could stop her. Her husband was astonished. After all, part of being a good missionary is honoring the culture and customs of the people. She was breaking a rule that no one ever thought to break.

The widow under the blanket seized Tamara’s hand and clenched it so tightly Tamara couldn’t even feel her fingers. The woman held on for the rest of the funeral. When she finally let go, Tamara ducked back out to face the consequences of her action.

Her spontaneous response to the Spirit had not gone unnoticed. The whole congregation was silent. The Bishop of the church came and stood before her. She was the center of attention and scrutiny. The foolishness of her split-second decision was clear. Would this cause their whole ministry to collapse? Would she loose the fragile respect of the people?

The Bishop stared at Tamara.

And then he spoke. “Thank you for entering the grave.”

Sisters and brothers, this story takes the cruciform shape of the gospel. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg boldly entered the grave of a living widow in a rural African village. She risked her reputation and her ministry by trespassing the rules and rituals of the culture. To the untrained eye, she was a fool. But her action revealed the abundant, life-giving, and foolish love of God. “For God’s foolishness,” Paul reminds us, “is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

In this Lenten season, we keep our hearts affixed to the cross. No matter how desperately we would rather avert our eyes from that horror, the scriptures keep pointing us back to the ultimate image of weakness and suffering: the crucified Christ, the glory of God nailed to a cross. In the words of the hymnist Brian Wren,

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?

(Brian Wren copyright 1973, 1975 CCLI # 1050338)

The Word of God—discarded. The Messiah—a scarecrow. The beloved Son of God—a nonsense pointing nowhere. The view at Calvary makes our Savior look like nothing more than a clown of sorrows. And yet through the cross, Jesus enters the grave. He extends his hand to us in our darkest hour, bringing the Spirit of the Living God into the lair of death.

Through the utter weakness of the crucified Christ, the power of God’s love resounds. The wisdom of the wise is destroyed. The discernment of the discerning is thwarted. Those who see the cross for what it is will never again believe the lie that death is more powerful than life, never again predict that violence and domination will triumph over sacrificial love.

We who follow the crucified Christ are bound to look like fools to the wider world. We are called to do unreasonable things to share God’s love with creation. And sometimes, by the grace of God, we live out our ridiculous vocation. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg offered God’s presence in a place thought to be godforsaken. Tom Fox lost his life doing the blessed work of peacemaking in a land wracked by war. And countless more Christians quietly answer the call to enter the grave as fools for Christ.

With your consent, I’d like to with a story of my own. I pray that if I boast, I boast in the Lord. As you know, I am in my first year of pastoral ministry. With the prayers and support of a legion of faithful Christians, I discerned and responded to the call God placed on my life. And I tell you what: I believe that God called me to this place. But even with that confidence, the first year of ministry can be daunting. One of the persistent issues has been my age and gender. The members and friends of this congregation got over the fact of my young age just as I was about to start making old age jokes. But the people I meet beyond the walls of this congregation still react. Many people respond with disbelief, but their shock soon warms into appreciation. On a few occasions, though, I have been hurt. I am hurt by the claim that my ordination was invalid because I am a woman. I am hurt when people assume that I am incapable of offering a pastoral presence to people in crisis. And I was hurt when a woman laughed at me, long and hard, when she learned that I am a pastor.

My instinct is to go on the defensive. I want to stand up for the Holy Spirit, who calls both men and women into spiritual leadership. I want to point out my Master of Divinity degree and my Certificate of Ordination, bragging about the education I received in seminary and the blessing I received from the Church.

But instead of those things, I must accept that by responding to my vocation as a minister of the gospel, I am a fool for Christ. I am no Tamara or Tom. I do not risk my life for the gospel the way these missionaries risked theirs. But I proclaim the crucified Christ in a land that is thirsty for the gospel.

We proclaim the crucified Christ in a land that is thirsty for the gospel. This is all we can do; if the power of God’s love revealed on the cross does not attract people, nothing will. The Kingdom of God will always look like a fool’s paradise to some. It is an upside-down place where the weak are strong, where the dumb are brilliant, where a discarded scarecrow hanging from a Roman cross is our salvation. It is divine madness, and it is the power of God. Amen.


Sunday, March 12 2006

Click here to read Mark 8:27-38.

His teacher was the Messiah. Not just another run of the mill holy man, passing magic tricks off as miracles. Jesus was the anointed One, the Beloved Son of God, the Christ. This peasant from Nazareth was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the answer to centuries of hope. God finally walked the earth, and soon his full glory would be made manifest. The Roman government would flee from the Israelites’ land, and once again the people of God would have a mighty Kingdom on Earth. Peter was delirious with joy, and spoke the truth on his heart: You are the Messiah.

And then the object of Peter’s hope dashed his hopes with a new teaching, that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter rebuked Jesus. We don’t know quite what he said, but he led the Son of God away from the Disciples like a misbehaving child, and attempted to put Jesus in his place. I can imagine his alarm as he desperately struggled to convince Jesus that the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. I can imagine this because I would have had the same reaction.

Many of us have heard the story of Jesus Christ so many times that we forget how radical it is. God doesn’t merely walk the dusty roads of Galilee; God walks to his death with a cross on his back.

One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years is called The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The protagonist, Pi, is unusually precocious when it comes to faith. Although he was born a Hindu, the young Indian boy is equally captivated by Islam and Christianity. There is a great scene in which his three religious teachers discover he has been moonlighting in other religions.

But what Pi has to say about the strange new story of Jesus Christ echoes Peter’s bafflement. He reflects,

“That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers … But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified -- and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying… divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar (His Son) die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”

What Pi is encountering here is the scandal of the Christian Faith. We have, in the person of Jesus Christ, the unique, offensive, and saving story of a God who suffers and dies on account of his compassionate, insatiable love for Creation.

Pi was familiar with many gods, and they were all invincible and immortal. Peter wanted a powerful God who saves his people from suffering, not a weak and broken God who bears the burden of suffering and death himself. Jesus rebukes Peter because Peter is wrong, but the fire behind his rebuke is pure fear. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and instead of the mighty Superhero we long for, he is a vulnerable, breakable human being.

Jesus Christ reveals a God who suffers. And though we might think that suffering and death spoils what is perfect, the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross reveals an utterly different sort of perfection—a perfect love. And this love is more powerful than pain, more powerful than sin, more powerful than death itself. It is a love that saves and reconciles, and it is a love that understands, profoundly, the breadth and depth of human experience.

The vulnerable God of Jesus Christ suffers alongside humanity, making himself known among the poorest and weakest of his children. A painting by W. Maxwell Lawton offers a powerful illustration of this (you can see the painting here). Lawton is a Christian painter who is living with AIDS. His experience of the Christ who bears the burden of human experience led him to paint a portrait called Man of Sorrows. At first glance, the painting seems very similar to the many portrayals of the Passion of Christ. But gazing at the painting, you soon recognize the gaunt features and skin lesions of a person dying of AIDS.

Along with the relentless blight of violence throughout Creation, the global AIDS crisis is one of the most painful contemporary expressions of human suffering. Forty million people are infected throughout the world; that many people standing in a line could stretch from Los Angeles to New York not once or twice, but three times.

In the United States and Europe, people who are HIV positive are treated with expensive drugs that increase their quality of life. But seventy percent of those who are HIV positive live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS drugs are scarce. Without treatment, these people suffer from a terrible wasting illness and repeated bouts of pneumonia. Eleven million African children have been left orphaned by the pandemic, and many of these children carry the virus themselves.

The Crucified Christ doesn’t avert his eyes from the pain and injustice of HIV/AIDS. He doesn’t wash his holy hands of the isolation and shame the virus brings about. He bears the cross of ultimate compassion, experiencing the utter brokenness of humankind.

He becomes the Christ with AIDS. He becomes the Christ with depression. He becomes the Christ with hunger pains and alcohol addiction and intense loneliness. Through the cross, God identifies himself once and for all as a God who loves us enough to share our pain.

But the story doesn’t stall out on Calvary. By accepting our vulnerability and bearing our sorrow, “God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as a potential means of healing.” (Bishop Kenneth Carder) The love of God in Christ Jesus transforms suffering and death into joy and new life. Even as Jesus discloses the frightening, difficult path ahead, he reveals God’s staggering promise of resurrection. After three days, he will be made whole again. The power of his vulnerability and the force of his love will shatter the suffering, brokenness, and sin that hold God’s people in thrall. Even the taste of death will be vanquished.

I have heard two great lies that relate to this text, both of which are incredibly popular among Christians. The first is the lie of Peter. Somehow the very real crucifixion of Christ and the obligation to carry one’s own cross is thrown out entirely. The Christian faith is seen as little more than comforting life insurance. At its worst, this lie turns God into a pawn at the beck and call of believers, doling out fancy cars and job promotions to those who “name and claim” what they want.

Not only is this lie an affront to the sacrificial love of Christ, it is also thin ice for Christians. If you believe that your problems will vanish when you become a Christian, your faith is bound to crash. We are assured that when the work of Christ is fulfilled, “death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” But in the meantime, we must rest in the assurance that through Christ, God has intimate understanding of our suffering, and bears it with us.

The second lie is even more dangerous. This lie exploits the call to carry one’s cross to condone unjust suffering. Are you a slave? Endure your humiliation as Jesus did. Are you abused? Accept the beatings as Jesus accepted his. This lie corrupts the meaning of the cross. It turns the sacrificial love of Christ into a tool for cruelty.

By challenging us to take up our cross, Christ “calls us to live the life he has made possible for us through his death and resurrection- a life where we speak his name without shame, and do his will, knowing that there may be a cost to our discipleship, but that we've already gained life with the divine.” (Lori A. Cornell)

Like Peter, we do not like to hear about rejection and crucifixion. We would prefer to skip ahead to the resurrection. But God chose to transform weakness into power through Christ’s sacrificial love. We are called to follow Christ, even to the point of death. The divine logic of losing your life to save it certainly isn’t rational. But if we are blessed with enough wisdom to know our weakness, we will put our trust in the wisdom of a vulnerable God.

May we each live the new life we are given through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, who is the Messiah, the Son of God who lives, and dies, and lives again.


First Sunday of Lent: March 5, 2006

Click here to read Mark 1: 9-15.

Boundaries are a fact of life, and for the most part, a fact we appreciate. Boundaries preserve and protect us. When you close and lock the front door of your house, you create a boundary that prevents unwanted guests from entering your home. When you drive down Pacific Coast Highway, you depend on the other drivers to mind the double yellow lines that separate the north and southbound lanes. The boundary between sound and silence is part of what makes music so beautiful. Even the foundation of the universe was accomplished by means of boundary-making; God separates light from darkness and water from dry land.

Sometimes the breaking of boundaries is tragic. Paint on the road cannot stop a drunk driver from drifting into oncoming traffic. We have seen images of the wreckage that happens when raging waters transgress the boundaries between land and sea. Violence breaks a multitude of boundaries—the boundaries of skin and trust and safety. We mourn when these boundaries are broken.

But then there are boundaries that are unjust, limitations that prevent Creation from embodying the will of God. The racist segregation laws in the American South were rules meant to be broken. The Disciples of Christ emerged as boundary-breakers on the frontier. The movement was fired by a Holy Spirit of protest. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of the Restoration Movement, could not reconcile the practice of excluding people from the communion table if they didn’t accept the church’s creeds. If it is the Lord’s Supper, who are we to determine who gets an invitation?

The starkness of Mark’s narrative brings boundaries into sharp focus. The gospel of Mark is not like the coastline, with jagged edges and shifting tides and a wide expanse of sand that is sometimes land and sometimes sea. The gospel of Mark is like a map of the coast: “land here, boundary, water there.” (Breaking the Boundaries). Green land meets blue ocean, and there is no doubt as to which belongs where. Mark doesn’t give us a genealogy. Mark doesn’t give us a story of an unmarried mother and a census and a host of angels. There is no infant Jesus in the gospel of Mark. Here we have the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and he is all grown up and ready to dive in.

And dive in he does. Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is promptly baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The force of his baptism punctures the boundary separating the heavens from the earth, and a voice addresses Jesus: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus is immediately pushed out into the desert, where he remains for forty days, withstanding temptation in the company of beasts and angels. At the close of the 40 days, Jesus passes his test and John loses his freedom, and the time has come for Jesus to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Here we have a story full of contrasts and boundaries. The one who will prepare the way, and the one who is the way. River and desert, heaven and earth, Satan and angels. Some of these boundaries are emphasized. Over the course of those 40 days in the desert, Jesus triumphs over Satan by resisting every temptation set before him. When he comes out of that desert, there is no question that he is indeed the beloved Son of God, strong and Spirit-filled enough to rebuff the corrupt persuasions of the evil one.

But other boundaries are blurred, and some are fully broken.

Jesus is the Son of God. His deep communion with the Spirit of God means that he is holy—so full of love and light and compassion that there is no room left over for sin. John the Baptist is a magnet for sinners—men and women with heavy burdens of guilt. People flock to John the Baptist because they recognize their brokenness, and the last thing they do before John dunks them in the Jordan River is confess their sins and repent. The waters of baptism wash away their sins, and they ascend from the river with the assurance that they are forgiven.

So why on earth would the beloved one of God allow himself to be submerged in the river alongside sinners? Shouldn’t the Son of God protect his image? If he is supposed to be sinless, shouldn’t he be on the riverbank, acting as a sort of holy cheerleader? Certainly it makes more sense for Jesus to stay dry and comfortable on the sidelines, there to simply welcome the repentant sinners into the new life of baptism.

But this isn’t how Jesus works. The boundary separating the sinless Son of God from sinful humanity is torn to shreds when Jesus wades into the water and leans into the arms of John the Baptist. God doesn’t simply peer through the veil of heaven and wonder what it is like to be a man. Through Christ Jesus, God stands in the midst of the human experience, stands in the middle of a river surrounded by sinners, and loves.

And before we have a chance to catch our breath from Jesus’ startling baptism, God pushes Jesus out into the desert, and Mark takes us along for the ride. From the river to the desert, and we are still in the presence of the beloved Son of God. Jesus walks away from the voice of benediction, away from the river that teems with life, and crosses the boundary into the dangerous, unlivable wilderness of the desert.

This scripture shifted into focus for me a few years ago when I went on a camping trip to Anza Borrego, the State desert park in San Diego County. Growing up in green Ohio, I had never been to the desert. And I have to be honest with you, I didn’t particularly like it. The desert was vast, unbearably dry, too hot during the day and too cold and night. The badlands were parched and brown, and the vegetation looked like it was more dead than alive. The desert wilderness feels like an empty and abandoned place—abandoned by life, and perhaps even abandoned by God.

It is no mistake that in the letter of Revelation, John imagines the fulfillment of Christ’s reconciling work as a great gathering by a river. Water is a powerful, sacramental image. God’s abundant grace is as vital as rain and as boundless as the ocean. The moisture of baptism is a tangible reminder of the life-giving Holy Spirit.

And the desert, with its lack of water, symbolizes the absence of Spirit. One of my preaching colleagues noted that “the dryness of the desert matches the dryness of life separated from God.”

The gospel surprises us again. Why would Jesus spend forty days in the most godforsaken of landscapes? The beloved Son of God, with whom God was well-pleased, spent forty days in the presence of evil. Forty days resisting temptations that Mark didn’t dare attempt to imagine.

The Spirit wasn’t supposed to be in the desert. But once again, Jesus demonstrates that God will not be contained, that no place is too barren for the angels of the Lord. In the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the enemy of God, a team of angels ministers to Jesus, sustaining him with gifts of water even in a physical and spiritual wasteland.

Just as Jesus refused to stand on the riverbank and coolly observe God’s broken children seek healing, neither could Jesus stay in the safe places where we expect to encounter the Holy Spirit. We encounter God in this sanctuary when we open our hearts for worship. But the God whose praises we sing is present even in the least sacred places, the places where the threat of death is fierce and persistent.

Through Christ, we learn that the Holy Spirit is present in the wilderness. The desert of the cancer ward? The Spirit is there. The desert of the AIDS clinic? The Spirit is there. The desert of Skid Row? The Spirit is there. The desert of Iraq? The Spirit is there.

Jesus comes out of the desert, and instead of a warm reunion with his spiritual brother, he finds that John has been arrested. In other words, this is a really bad time to follow the way that John the Baptist prepared for him. The same Public Relations guru who would have directed Jesus to refuse the waters of baptism and resist the Spirit that drove him into the desert would recommend that Jesus should go underground for awhile until the buzz about John tapered off. It was just a bad time for good news. But the Kingdom of God does not operate according to our time frame. The time is fulfilled, so in the shadow of John’s arrest, Jesus finally begins giving voice to his mission: to reveal the forgiving and ever-present character of God.

This is the good news: in this messy world, full of sin and death and a million different reasons to feel pain, God loves us so much that he sent his beloved Son to bear witness and share the burden. This Son will not observe the regulations that separate holy and unholy. He will not respect conventions that segregate God from his people. Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, touch lepers with his bare hands, and eat with a reviled tax collector. On this Lenten journey, we remember again the Christ who breaks boundaries and suffers the consequences, all because of a love that cannot be contained. May own hearts be broken and filled with such love. Amen.


February 26th: Feast of the Transfiguration

Click here to read Mark 9:2-9.

Last Wednesday evening, I preached at the Disciples worship service at Chapman University. The new chapel is a sight to behold. It is architecturally, aesthetically, and spiritually breathtaking. My favorite part was the set of stained glass windows. These windows don’t have the exquisitely detailed designs of our sanctuary windows. They are plainly colored with the shades of the lectionary—red, green, purple, and white. And supposedly, they are placed in such a way that the appropriate liturgical color will be dominant during each extended liturgical season. How the designers managed to calculate this is a mystery, but during the long months of Ordinary time, the sanctuary is filled with light filtered through the green glass. It is a beautiful reminder of the deep connection between the seasons of the Church and the seasons of the earth. Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany—the last reminder, for the time being, that God’s light blazes even in the darkness of winter. Beginning this Ash Wednesday, we take a sharp turn into a very different season— a season of journeys, shadows, and sorrow.

Even though I trust the logic and spirit of the liturgical year and the weekly lectionary scriptures, this week I was caught off guard. This being my first year of preaching on a weekly basis, all the curves in the road are still unfamiliar. I had gotten pretty used to working through the first and second chapters of the Gospel of Mark in a tidy, sequential way. Studying Mark’s purposeful narrative offers such a clear portrait of the amazing beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. I was all ready to dive deeper into the second chapter of Mark, all ready to tag along as Jesus eats dinner with Levi the tax collector.

But the lectionary points us to a very different time and place in the Gospel according to Mark. We skip past teachings and parables, healings and miracles, and we land at the foot of a mountain. Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and on this last Sunday of the season of Light, we join Christians the world over to gather with Peter and James and watch as a supernatural event unfolds.

Weeks ago, on Epiphany Sunday, we recalled the brilliant star that led the Magi to the newborn Christ child. That light revealed that Christ would be the light of the world. Today we celebrate the fulfillment of that light, the Christchild grown up into a man in dazzling white clothes, conversing with the great figures of the faith. These stories are seasonal bookends of light and life—the first the light of incarnation, and the last the light of resurrection. Here we are given the gift of a foretaste of what is to come, and just in the nick of time. The 40 days of Lent can be exhausting. Even though we need to grapple honestly with the journey toward the cross, we also cannot afford to lose hope. So today we are given a supersized dose of hope—a supernatural sized dose of hope.

The story of the transfiguration is big and marvelous, and if we’re going to be completely honest, it’s a little weird. Peter and James certainly experienced the event as terrifying and strange. Peter offers the feeble suggestion that they build a dwelling—a tabernacle to commemorate the transfigured Jesus in communion with Elijah and Moses. This is a silly suggestion, and Peter knows it right away. For all of the miracles that Peter and James have seen in their travels with Jesus, nothing prepares them to see the Son of Man in full glory. They are terrified. It doesn’t help that this event transpires immediately after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. These two disciples are startled by the realization that their fraternity with this holy man is even bigger, even more cosmic than they could have imagined.

On that mountain we witness such a medley of glory and confusion. Jesus has taken on a transfigured shine, Elijah and Moses have stopped by for a midnight chat, and Peter and James are trembling with terror. And in the midst of this mountaintop experience, a cloud overshadows the whole mountain, and the thunderous sweet voice of God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Let’s stay here a minute, tarry for awhile in this moment and on this mountain. In our fast-paced world of constant entertainment and amusement, we’re in danger of missing the terrific depth of the transfiguration. Glory is a difficult concept for us to wrap our minds around, for it isn’t a concept at all. The glorified Jesus emanates the presence of the divine source of all light and life and love. This isn’t some second-rate special effects show. This is God, dramatically and purposefully breaking into the orderly brokenness of Creation. God can and does show up— and nothing is ever the same. This moment in time was transfigured, and so too will God continue to burst into history, transfiguring and redeeming the whole of Creation through the glorious light of Christ.

Of course, the moment doesn’t last. Peter’s suggestion to build a tabernacle to memorialize the transfiguration of Christ was a desperate attempt to capture the moment and make it last forever. But God’s glory cannot be contained any more than God’s voice can be recorded and marketed at the Christian bookstores. The moment ends, but the commandment that descended from the Heavens remains: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Listen to him. We might not have been on that mountain, seeing what Peter and James saw, but they preserved the most important piece of the whole story—God’s commandment to listen to what his Son actually had to say. This commandment is intimately related to the transfiguration, inextricably bound to the revelation of God’s glory.

How so? By listening to the beloved Son of God, we glorify him.

And this is how one of the most supernatural stories in the whole gospel gets very, very practical. In the course of foreshadowing the glorious resurrection of Christ, we are reminded once again that there is a purpose behind the scandalous incarnation. There is a reason for the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not walk the dusty roads of Galilee only to die that violent death on Calvary. If that were the case, the evangelists wouldn’t have bothered to document the parables and miracles that Jesus shared with his people. The gospel story would be completely alien without the gentle, ordinary, glorious voice of Jesus speaking a new word to Creation.

Listen to him. Listen to him through the call to compassionate giving on this Week of Compassion Sunday. Listen to him throughout the contemplative season of Lent, calling you toward a life more closely aligned with his shining love. Listen to him as you pray, listen to him as you share meals around the holy table of communion. Listen to him through the relationships you nurture with friends and family. Listen to him through the scriptures. And by the grace of God, let what you hear empower you to glorify Christ Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.