Flunking Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.”

Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they’re my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.

But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.

When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will “create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.”

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations. Read more

For God So Loved the World

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I’m reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest–Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe–and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible’s strangeness in the Sunday sermon. “The beauty of the Bible,” he says, “is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery.” Read more

Asleep at the Wheel

John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)

There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship. Read more

Closer to the Brink

Last Sunday’s readings (the First Sunday of Lent for the Western Church) were stories of destruction turned into rescue and peril into triumph. Noah, at God’s urging, saves a remnant of Creation and receives God’s covenantal promise. Jesus, upon being baptized, is immediately (euthus, one of Mark’s favorite words) driven into the wilderness (the verb, ekballein, suggests being tossed, hurled, or expelled, as in an exorcism) where he is unsuccessfully tempted by Satan before being waited upon by angels.

This week – with the Revised Common and Catholic lectionaries diverging – peril and destruction are nearer than ever. In Mark 8:31-38, Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” for advising against the path of suffering, death and resurrection. It doesn’t help that the phrase, “pick up your cross,” has lost its terrifying charge over the centuries. We might have to try a contemporary paraphrase, something like: “renounce your citizenship, lie down willingly on your waterboard, and die.” Yes, there’s the promise of the Father coming in glory with his angels, but Jesus makes plain you can’t get there from here except through the valley of death (not its shadow, mind you, but the real, mortal, unavoidable deal). Read more

Psalms for the Journey

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy . . . Psalm 16:11

It is fitting that we read, pray, and sing the Psalms during Lent—this season of the church year when we experience the full gamut of human emotions: sadness, doubt, confusion, rage, praise, thanksgiving, joy. The Psalms convey all of these emotions and more, and thus they place front and center something often lacking in our common discourse: honest speech. In their grappling with loss and abandonment, fear and pain, and in their ecstatic surrender to worship, praise, and adoration, the Psalms—the lamenting ones, the cursing ones, and the praising ones—help us to speak truthfully before God and one another. Read more

Light for the Journey

Transfiguration Sunday – Mark 9:2-9

The Gospel Lesson for Transfiguration Sunday suffers from something that lectionary texts often do: It begins in the middle of a longer narrative, the whole of which helps to situate and make sense of the lifted-out passage under consideration. The Mark reading begins with: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” We then go on to get engrossed in the familiar story of how the appearance of Jesus changes; how Moses and Elijah suddenly show up; how Peter characteristically misreads the scene.

But what happened six days earlier? Could it have any bearing on the journey to the mountaintop and on what transpired there? Read more

I Do Choose…

Epiphany 6B – Mark 1:40-45

The healing stories of Jesus are among my favorite stories of the gospels. There is something deeply honest about persons in considerable pain—a woman bent low, a man born blind, a father pleading on behalf of his ailing daughter—coming to Jesus in desperation and placing all their hopes upon Jesus’ willingness to make them well. Jesus never disappoints, either. He always meets their desperation with compassion, their suffering with relief, their isolation with restoration. In this week’s gospel lesson, the same is true for the leper who comes to Jesus kneeling at his feet begging, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Rather than be repulsed by the man’s potentially contagious condition, Jesus moves toward the leper reaching out to him and touching him saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Read more

Is Your World Shaped By the Gospel?

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 (Epiphany 5B)

Each of the New Testament lessons this week make reference to Jesus and Paul’s felt responsibility to proclaim the gospel message wherever they were. In the gospel, after healing Simon’s mother-in-law as well as many others who were brought to him, Jesus demands of the disciples that they move onto other towns so that he might “proclaim the message; for that is what [he] came to do” (vs. 38). Similarly, Paul speaks to the Corinthian Christians about the obligation he feels to proclaim the gospel to all people at all times. The question left for us, then, is “Do we also feel that obligation to proclaim the gospel in all times and places?” Read more

By Whose Authority?

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

A little word history from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Authority: First written appearance in English: 1230, autorite “book or quotation that settles an argument,” from from L. nom. auctoritas ,”invention, advice, opinion, influence, command,” from auctor “author.” Used to mean “power to enforce obedience” is from 1393; meaning “people in authority” is from 1611. Authoritative first recorded 1609. Authoritarian is recorded from 1879.

Power: First written appearance in English: 1297, from L. potis “powerful” Used to mean “a state or nation with regard to international authority or influence” dates from 1726. Powerful is c.1400. The powers that be is from Rom. 13:1. Read more

Epiphany 3B

Mark 1:14-20

I have a brother who is a bit of an adrenaline junky. In many ways he is not unlike most 26 year old boys who have no house payment, car payment, girlfriend, wife or kids: footloose and fancy free. On the other hand, there is something quite unique about my brother. It is the fact that, on average, he risks his life 2-3 times per day. You see, my brother has made a life for himself out of pushing the envelope. If you were to ask him, he would tell you that airplanes were invented to be jumped out of, mountains were made to be crawled up and then skied down, and waterfalls were created in order to slide off in 6’ pieces of molded plastic. My brother’s primary raison d’être is white water kayaking. He has traveled all over the world finding and conquering the world’s wildest rivers and creeks. If we didn’t share the hallmark Shuman nose, you might wonder how we are related. When it comes to taking risks, we are as different as night and day. Read more