Friday, May 26, 2017

A Second Look At The Great Commission

It's been a couple of weeks since I posted.  And it's been a busy time.  During this time First Baptist Church has called me to be their settled Pastor.  After a four year break from ministry, and a ten plus year time of working as an Interim Pastor in a number of churches (4 others actually) in this area, I will be settling down to a long term view of life with one congregation.

This has gotten me thinking, once again, about what it means for us to be Church.  Church with a capital "C."  Church that spans denominations and Church that extends over time.  Two sets of passages have been impacting the way that I think about this: 

The first is the passage from John 11 that was our focus in worship last Sunday.  In it, John tells the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  There are a lot of directions that you can take this passage, but we focused on two. 

The first is that when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, even Lazarus' sister Martha warned Jesus against it because there would be a bad odor.  We asked ourselves whether there have been times when we have been reluctant to join Jesus' action of giving new life in the world because we feared it would cause a stink.  Do we sometimes shy away from the risky life of being God's people in this time and place because we fear the smell of failure?

The second was the remarkable moment when Lazarus comes hopping out of the tomb, bound hand and foot.  Jesus tells those gathered around Lazarus to cut him loose.  Now it's always seemed to me that if you're powerful enough to raises the dead, you can say to grave clothes, "fall off," and they'll fall off.  But Jesus gave the job of freeing Lazarus to the community around him.  All too often I think we expect that people Jesus has called into this new and abundant life are supposed to arrive at the church's door "grave cloth free."  But the truth is that we all have grave clothes.  And we'll all need help with them til the day we're called into the Kingdom.  Part of the job of the community of faith is cutting each other loose.  One of the jobs (and one I find very difficult) is to stand still so that you can help me be free.  I tend to be afraid of what will happen if you unwrap me and exclaim, "OH YUCK!"

Then there are the passages for this Sunday.  They're Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 1:6-11.  They're Matthew and Luke's pictures of what we've come to call the Great Commission.  The command that Jesus gave to His disciples (and to us) to go out into the world and share the Good News of who Jesus is and how He taught us to live.

There's this strange moment in the Matthew passage (v. 16) in which Matthew tells us that the disciples "worshipped Him, but some doubted."

The word that Matthew for doubt is only used one other time in his gospel. In fact,, it is only used one other time in the New Testament, in Matthew 14:22-33. That is when Peter, walking on the water, takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins sink. As Jesus lifts him from the water He asks, "why did you doubt?" Peter didn't doubt who Jesus was, what he struggled with was whether he could actually do what Jesus was inviting him to do.  Whether it was actually possible.

When Jesus say, "teach them to live out what I have commanded/taught you," this is an invitation for us to go back through the Gospels and to rediscover what that actually is.  What would happen if we went back through the Gospel of Matthew with a blank slate, with a few preconceptions as we could muster, and listed the things that Jesus actually taught and commanded?  How might that alter the way in which we look at our life of faith?

When you and I are tempted to believe that the kingdom is impossible, to settle for second best in our world rather that moving toward what Jesus tells us is possible;  maybe even tempted to stand looking up at the sky waiting for Jesus to show up and fix it for us;  perhaps two things are the things these two men in white told the disciples.  That we need to stop standing around, and that we have a job to do.

Jesus is God incarnate.  In His life and teaching He is like the music teacher putting our fingers on the keys to show us how to play the notes. Then, we are returned to the task we were created for: to oversee creation; to build for the Kingdom; to join God in the symphony of the universe. The Holy Spirit will be with us, but we have a job to do.  And remember what Jesus said, "Look, I will be with you, even to the end of the age."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Are We Looking Like Jesus This Morning

When the justice the prophets cried for
Comes close,
rolling down like a river to the sea;
That justice looks like Jesus.
When the promise of God
To gather His flock
home to be feed and protected
from where they've been scattered
by bullying greed
on a day of thick clouds and darkness;
That shepherding looks like Jesus.
The wings that bear up,
and the pinions that protect;
The Balm in Gilead
that will not stand
a single wounded one
To not be made whole;
This sure looks a lot like Jesus.
So when we look around us
we should be
and Afraid.
Because we will be judged
by just how much
Our world looks like Jesus this morning.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Appearances In Broken Places

We were seated around a table doing our first read through together as a cast.  The play, Forsaken Angels, is a stark and graphic presentation of human trafficking.  Most of us had read the whole play before.  All of us had read parts of it as we auditioned, and had been reading our lines before this evening.  But tonight, reading aloud, together for the first time.....well the emotional weight of the play really hit home.  All of us, by the end of the first act, were a little shell shocked and remarked on this to one another.

I wonder if this isn't part of the purpose of Eastertide-the season of Easter which stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.  We often spend this time exploring the various appearances that Jesus makes to His disciples.  This is what we've been doing here at 1st Baptist Hyattsville this year.  There's Mary Magdalene in her grief; Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus in their despair; Thomas in his search for proof and his doubts; and (next week) Peter in his guilt.

I wonder if this kind of exploration, when we do it, doesn't protect us from an easy "faith-ism" that just tips our hat to the Resurrection, waves to the Easter Bunny, and moves on down the road.  It reminds us that Jesus, who came to welcome outsiders in His life, was (and still is) about this same thing after His resurrection.

Each of these people: Mary Magdalene, Cleopas, Thomas, Peter; in their own stuttering, stumbling way had come to love and believe in Jesus.  The were willing to risk that this incredibly counter intuitive way of living, this truly alternative approach to neighbor and stranger alike might be possible.  With His death, all of that was shattered.  I believe that they thought, as perhaps we would have thought, "That's it.  The bad guys always win.  It isn't about love or care, it's about power and gold and who gets to say who is and isn't a good religious person (remember that the Pharisees and religious leaders kept a tally sheet based on the Laws)."  These who Jesus had brought from the outside into the inside through the embrace of His love, felt like they were on the outside again.

Jesus' personal, deeply personal, appearances to them challenged their fear and validated their commitment even as it validated what Jesus had taught them and how He loved them.  Because of this, they changed the world.  They were martyred.  They kept on.  They were hunted down.  They kept on.  They were kicked out of families and synagogues.  They kept on (I'm tempted to say "still they persisted," but I will refrain.  But they only did this because Jesus came to them where they were, in whatever expression of their shattered brokenness they found themselves.

And, at least in Thomas' case, Jesus showed His wounds.  This is what moved Thomas to say, for the first time in John's Gospel that anyone connects Jesus in this way, "my Lord and my God."  It is not a great leap to say that Jesus continues to show us His wounds.  The words, "If you do it to the least of these," lead us to the conclusion that Christ Himself is represented in the world around us in the broken, the hungry, the refugee, the immigrant, the prisoner, the child smuggled across the border.  Jesus shows us His wounds.  Do we have the vision of Thomas to see them?  Do we have the faith of Thomas to say, "my Lord and my God" and embrace these wounds in service and mercy as our true worship?

Saturday, April 29, 2017


Emmanuel. God with us.
It means that the needles
That killed two men in Arkansas,
And the one pushed into
the vein of a junkie
on West Street in Annapolis,
As well as the one that sedated
a three year old
for brain procedures in Baltimore,
All these needles
Pricked the heart of God.
The heart of God beating among us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

I Don't Want To Get Past Easter

"If I can just get past Easter," is the mantra of many clergy this time of year...including myself.  When said in this way, it is a hope that we can deal with all the things that Holy Week throws at us.  There's Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  There's the (in many churches) the Easter Egg Hunt that it is hoped will bring in more families with young children. 

Then there is, at least in my case this year, the string of funerals that seems an almost endless of friends and church members and even strangers who want a preacher to lay Daddy to rest.  Each of them challenges my understanding of this season of the Christian year in a different way.

And finally there is the Easter sermon and service.  This most important day in the Christian year challenges us to find ways to communicate the truth of the Resurrection in a culture that avoids the discussion and to people who increasingly do not seem to believe in its physicality.

But in another way, I don't want to get past Easter.  I wrote the poem fragment below while thinking about this

That Jesus crawled down Death's gullet for my sake
And kicked the door open from the inside out
That God, In affirming and validating
What Jesus did and taught
Raised Him from the dead

Because He blew apart the Abyss
when we look into our own abyss
and the abyss looks back
We can laugh
because we know what is coming.
In the pause before the explosion
We smile in Evil's face
and spit

It's not much of a poem, really...and it's actually pretty angry.  But my point is that when I look at what's going on in the world right now; the moves to cut funding for things like Meals On Wheels and services to the poor, Trump's politicizing of medical care and withholding aid in an attempt to "have Schumer begging" to negotiate Obama Care, terrorism in all it's forms....I don't want to get past Easter because Easter is the only thing that gives me any hope.

I believe that Jesus conquered Death (with a big D) and bodily rose again.  I believe that in doing this, Jesus defeated the Powers and Principalities that appear to govern our world.  I don't think it is a metaphor (sorry Marcus Borg) for the disciples somehow "feeling Jesus presence."  I believe He was dead....and that He rose. Done. Finished. Period.

If that's not true, then the bastards have won.  Death has won.  Sin has won.  Terror and hatred have won.

But I don't believe they have.

My favorite Easter image is Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black going down that giant roach's gullet to retrieve his weapon.  I love that moment just before Jones pulls the trigger and blows that bug apart from inside.  That's what I think Jesus did to Sin and Death and Evil.  They're dead and just don't know it...they haven't fallen down yet....but they will.  In the meantime we're called to stomp on all the little roaches (hunger, racism, injustice, etc....go back and watch Will Smith in this same scene) as we work to build for the Kingdom.

Christ Is Risen
Christ Is Risen Indeed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

And Peter

Go tell His disciples...
and Peter...
Peter, whose heart
choked to death on his shame
when he heard the rooster crow.
whose shame was public
like a politician caught
with an underaged hooker
the day after speaking at a Graham rally.
who had written himself out if the story,
found Jesus writing him back in.
The first resurrection that morning
was Jesus
but Jesus made sure
that the second resurrection
was Peter.
So I shouldn't have to tell you,
but I will,
Just to make the point
like it was made that morning
that when Jesus says "tell them"
this morning
He means "tell them...and you"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Poems Triggered By Other Poems

Once more a poem by my friend Maren Tirabassi has triggered a poetic response from me.  You can find her poem here...I think it is beautiful:

And here is what it jumped off in me:


She broke open her treasure
Poured it out in reckless love
There was no calculating
about how to divide it up
to make it last or spread it out
There was only love's reckless abandon.

He broke open
poured out for the forgiveness of sins
"My body," He said, "Broken for you."
Love's reckless abandon once again
Breaks open
what contains the thing most precious
and anoints the Beloved with it.

Nothing held back
nothing saved for "just in case"
That's why jars are broken,
so that every drop might be used.

O Jesus,
She, and You lived out
Love's great Anointing
While we
measure out our lives
with an eyedropper
And wonder why nothing changes.