Advent 4a: the center that wouldn’t hold

Leave a comment
Uncategorized

I’m intrigued by Catherine Keller’s theological archaeology, where she raises up Nicholas of Cusa, an obscure 15th century cardinal and mystic.

Nicholas mused on the cosmos as a product of its Creator, and which, he presumed would therefore have to resemble its Progenitor. He assumed, that since God is infinite and without bounds, then it would be reasonable to assert that the cosmos is likewise infinite and without bounds.

Extrapolating on this crazy thought, he said that if it has no bounds, then there is no circumference. And, if no circumference, then, *ipso facto*, it has no center.

And, if the cosmos has no center… then the earth isn’t the center of anything.

He says this nearly a century before Copernicus, and well over 150 years before Galileo.

That is just astounding.

And, for a people whose entire conception of their world rested on the fact that we live on an earth that is in the center of a universe, in which the sun and everything else revolves around us – that must have been utterly disconcerting. Disturbing.

Decentering. (Literally.)

To be unseated from the center of creation must have set off a cultural panic attack. (Just ask Galileo who had been sent to his room without supper.)

Our entire identity rested on the notion of us being special, which for us meant, central. In the middle. in the spotlight.

But no, says Isaiah, we don’t need to be in the center to be special. No, for God isn’t just at the outer-reaches of the cosmos. God isn’t just in nebulae and black holes. God isn’t just on some throne a million light years away in some heaven that no rocket can reach.

God is, of course, in all of those places. And many more. But, that is not all.

No Isaiah says. God is with us. Emmanuel.

It is not our place in the universe which makes us special, it is God’s place in the universe. Rather, it is God’s predilection to want to cozy up beside us, walk before us, abide beneath us, and reside within us that makes us so.

Matthew’s Gospel was written at a time when the people of Jerusalem were licking their wounds in the Syrian city of Antioch. The Great Temple had been thrown down, the vessels destroyed, and the priests slaughtered. The People of God wondered “why” and what they were to do next. Was it because they had sinned? Had God abandoned us? Were we now like Job, soon to be laughed at and mocked while sitting in the ashes?

Matthew’s reminder to these people was that while the whole world seemed to be thrown off its center, all was going to be ok, because Emmanuel – God is with us. If those People of God had been able to stick around for fifteen more centuries they would have learned from dear Nicholas that not only had the world been thrown off its center, but there was, in fact, no center to begin with.

“Nevermind,” the cardinal from Cusa might say. For God is with us. On good days, and bad days, and every day in between. On days when we can summon up the courage to stand, and on other days when we can’t do more than cower under the covers.

God, the One Without Bounds, the One Without Circumference, and the One Without a Center, abides with us. Today. Always. Wherever we might be.

Emmanuel.

advent 3a: chucking the wrench

Leave a comment
Advent / Christology / Gospels / Jesus / Lectionary / New Testament / Religion / Year A

It’s a Saturday in the middle of winter, and the heating system in your church breaks down. It’s cold outside, and somehow seems even colder inside. The air stings, and the pews are frigid. You can’t imagine having sweet little old ladies sitting on them tomorrow, but you don’t want to cancel church again. It’s been a snowy winter.

The HVAC company van rolls into the church driveway, and the technician gets out with a clipboard and a toolbox. It’s the weekend, so labor is going to cost you time-and-a-half, but you have no other option.

He heads into the furnace room, and proceeds to take the equipment apart to diagnose and repair the problem.

After being there for several hours, you know that the technician is feeling your anxiety. He’s feeling pressured to get this thing fixed for the morning. There isn’t any time to have a part ordered. This thing needs fixed today.

With tension in the air, you walk into the furnace room, and ask the technician, “Are you the actual repair man, or should I be waiting for someone else?”

He backs away from the furnace and looks at you, as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”

Replay that story again, but this time from the perspective of the HVAC repair guy. It’s Saturday. You wanted to be with your spouse and kids. But, here you are in this church trying to work a miracle on this machine that has so much neglected routine maintenance on it, it’s not even funny. You know that they have church tomorrow, and so you’re trying to fix it with what you have, instead of putting in an order for a new part. And, after several hours, the hapless minister—who’s been hovering like an anxious mother bird—insults you by asking if he should be waiting for someone else to come and actually fix this thing.

The fact that you didn’t chuck your wrench at the minister’s head should land you on a list for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is what John the Baptist does to Jesus. Jesus has been preaching, and healing, and exorcising, walking on water, and raising people from the dead… and John sends his disciples to ask Jesus:

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I wonder if John sent them there—to the person that he knew very well was the Messiah—because he wanted to put his own disciples in the position where they could question him. He pushed them to push God.

His disciples weren’t to be the kind that just sat quiet and still, and did what they were told. No, they were the kind of disciples who questioned everything and anything. They stood in the long line of people who dared to ask God what in the world He was up to. Like Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and Habakkuk, and Job—John the Baptist’s disciples were going to learn how to walk up to God and ask God a question.

Because by doing so they would learn that God welcomes such things. In fact God yearns for such attention and willingness to engage in a real relationship. God would not throw a wrench at them. God would love them.

And, by forming his disciples in such a manner, they would follow in John’s footsteps, preparing the way of the Lord wherever they went.

advent 2a: a turn of repentance

Leave a comment
Advent / Gospels / New Testament / Religion / Status / Temple / Year A

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

As John bellowed these words you had been clapping and whistling, chanting and laughing with the crowds—jeering at the sad faces of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The crowd was electric with John’s verbal lashing, and was merciless with their own taunts.

The long-fringed robes and the broad phylacteries of the religious leaders, which they had put on as a demonstration of the depth of their faith, now clung to them like a jester’s costume.

They had come to see what John was up to, and they had fallen into a trap. They had come to watch him, and yet they had become the focus of attention.

And then… with the laughter and shouting still hanging in their air… John the baptist turned from the Pharisees and Sadducees—the keepers of the Word and the tenders to the Temple—and he turned towards… you, and the people around you. With fierce eyes, lit like from within, he looked you over from top to bottom.

While you had moments earlier joined in on the jeering of the professionally religious, whose faults are freely available for all to see, and who make such easy targets, now you feel those same words stuck in your throat.

What fruit have I bore? Where are my sagging branches, heavy with the fruits of righteousness and compassion? Where have I shown myself to be on the side of God? Where have I been an agent of peace? Where have I stood on the side of the oppressed and impoverished? Where have I shown that the poor in spirit are the ones who are truly blessed?

The stones, lying at my feet… could these stones be shown to be more faithful than I? Children of Abraham?

John the Baptist, seething in anger that his sermon had been used as a means to mock and jeer others—to set them as unwelcome outsiders—looked at you. He turned and gazed over his shoulder at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, standing there stung, like they had just been spanked, and worried that they were about to take another round.

John then walked over to them. He gestured to one of them, and the man took off his phylactery and handed it to John. John strapped it to his forehead. He motioned to another for his fringed-robe, and the man gave it to him. He draped himself in it.

Then he looked across the crowd towards us, and he said:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Advent 1a: you know nothing

comment 1
Advent / Jesus / Lectionary / Year A

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.

Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”

For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.

But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone. Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.

If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.

But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.

All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.

For what? God knows what.

You know nothing, John Snow.

Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.

Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.

Who knows? I don’t.

But, I can be awake.

2,000 years later and I’ve finally figured out the Lord’s Prayer! (maybe) (ok, not really)

Leave a comment
Jesus / Lectionary / New Testament / Prayer / Year C

West Virginia SunriseIn the Gospel of Luke the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus gives them a shorter-than-we’re-used-to version of the Lord’s Prayer.

There’s a jillion sermons and books and journal articles and videos and blog posts about the content of the Lord’s Prayer, how important it is, how similar it is to other ancient Jewish prayers of Jesus’ day, etc.

But, here’s the thing… I think we might just possibly be barking up the wrong tree. At least in Luke.

I mean Jesus is known for not directly answering a questions asked of him, or doing exactly what is asked of him. People ask him what they must do to inherit eternal life, and he says, “What do you think?” People ask him what the greatest commandment is, and he asks them what they read in the law. His mother informs him that the party has run out of wine, and says that it’s none of his business…before changing the water into wine.

So, I find it a little curious that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he just spits out a six line prayer like that’s all there is to it.

If you asked someone to teach you how to fly a jumbo jet aircraft, and they told you about six knobs and levers to pull and twist, and that that was all there was to it, you’d might be a little skeptical.

If you asked someone how to make wonderfully flaky and buttery puff pastry, and they gave you a short ingredient list and then told you to throw it all in the oven for a little bit, you’d want a little more detail.

If you asked an artist how you could paint like Van Gogh, and they told you to get some paint and while making a sunflower on a canvas to apply the paint thickly, you wouldn’t be too impressed.

So, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them a short prayer? That’s it? Really?

That wouldn’t even work today. If someone comes into my office, asking me to teach them how to pray, they aren’t going to be satisfied if I hand them a card with the Lord’s Prayer stamped on it. They are going to want more.

Jesus and his first century Jewish disciples had lots of prayers. Prayers for when they woke up, prayers for when they sat down to eat, prayers for when they had messed up… They were not short on prayers.

So, what’s going on here?

I wonder if Jesus isn’t punking them. Not so that he could embarrass them, of course, but so that they might have the fortitude to go deep and keep going there.

Peter Rollins tells a great tale in his book Insurrection about a man who desperately runs up to the home of the town priest and bangs on the door looking for help for a family that’s about to get evicted. The man tells the clergyman with great emotion that this is a great family, that they are very trustworthy, that they’ve never, ever been late with their rent before—and if they don’t come up with the full amount today that they will be out on the street by evening. The priest says, yes, of course he can help. But, just before setting off to the church for the discretionary fund checkbook the priest asks the man, “By the way, how do you know the family?”

The man replies nonchalantly, “Oh, I’m their landlord.”

The guy is asking a favor from someone, and yet he also has the power within himself to do something about it.

Knowing Jesus’ predilection for answering a question with a question, and for responding with unconventional responses to requests, I wonder if this isn’t what Jesus is doing here. As if Jesus is really saying,

You want to know how to pray? You want to commune with the Force that set the sun, moon, and stars in the sky and put the planets on their courses? You want to step into the Presence of the One who knit you together in your mother’s womb, and whose glory stretches across the universe? Well, here’s a few nice words to get you started.

Everything you need to know is within you. But, you’re going to need more than this. And, you’re going to need more time than we have this morning.

And if it doesn’t work the first time, or the 1,578th time—just keep at it. Be persistent. Be in it for the long haul. 

Ask, and keep asking. Knock and keep knocking. But, keep your words down to a handful, because the real magic happens when you listen. 

Do this, and you might just be surprised at the doors which open, and the gifts you receive.

Leave a comment
book review / Religion / Science

I’m on sabbatical right now, and one of the books I’ve read is How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newborn, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. And, it was so good that I immediately bought their new book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain!

This is my third short video on this book, and this video is summary of their findings on anger.

Summary: What Does God Look Like?

Leave a comment
book review / Religion / Science

I’m on sabbatical right now, and one of the books I’ve read is How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newborn, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. And, it was so good that I immediately bought their new book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain!

This is my second short video on this book, and this video is summary of chapter five. Look for subsequent short videos on aspects of this important work.