Sunday, April 12, 2015


In the movie Bend it Like Beckham, Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra is the 18-year-old daughter of Punjabi Sikh Indians from west London. Her parents expect her to be to be a respectable Sikh girl and cover her body modestly. Her parents would naturally encourage modesty in any girl, but to make matters worse, Jess was burned on her legs as a little girl when she was trying to help her mother cook in the kitchen. Jess' mother accidentally dropped a pot of boiling water on the floor and it splattered over Jess' legs.  So her mother is constantly telling her to cover up, be modest, be respectful. Her mother also tells her that her legs are hideous looking and that no man would ever want to marry her once that man had seen her legs.  Jess is a good girl and she is prepared to be obedient to her parents but there is one huge problem--Jesminder loves to play soccer and she's really really good at it. So the movie is all about this young girl struggling to cover up her wounds and how she ends up covering her talent.

Jess sneaks away from her parents and battles her shame and humiliation. First she tries to play soccer in pants but before the first game, they are given their uniforms and Jess has to put on shorts, so she hides in the bleachers. 

There is this beautiful scene where Jess is up there in the bleachers hiding and her coach, a young man, goes up to sit next to her, to find out what's wrong. She shows him her scars and he lifts up his pants leg and shows her his scars from when he had to have numerous knee surgeries. He explains about how his scars on his knee meant the end of his career as a soccer player but that if he had not hurt his knee, he never would have discovered coaching. And without pity or shame, he tells her to get out there on the field. The young coach and Jessminder end up falling in love after showing each other their scars.  And Jess ends up winning a scholarship to an American University to play soccer.

In the garden of Eden we felt true peace and communion with God.  We were free to be naked and intimate with God in a kind of harmony that we all still crave. When we ate what was not offered to us, when we fell from God's grace, our first reaction was to feel two things: fear and shame. We noticed that we were naked. We were ashamed and we hid from God in fear.

Ever since that time, we all hear something like Jesminder's mother in our heads: cover up, hide, you are shameful. You are ugly. You have made too many mistakes. Put on a facade of success. Pretend that you have it all together. When someone says how are you, say fine. Talk about your degrees, your children's accoumplishments, how much you love your job. Tell people in so many words, how great you are or better yet, show them and they will be impressed and you will be loved.

But love is not born when one person impresses another, no, that is infatuation or idolatry if there is any feeling at all. No, love is born when people uncover themselves and share their wounds.

Jesus appeared in the upper room on the evening of the first day of the week. The disciples were were scared. They were certain that the authorities might realize who they really were, friends and followers of Jesus. So the disciples hid, because that's what we humans do when we are afraid. They were hiding. I can just imagine the atmosphere in the room: whispers, shame, blame, grief and a hint of hope from some unreliable women who claimed to have seen Jesus early in the morning. Their claim must have seemed so stupid, almost child-like, preposterous. And it must have made the disciples feel worse.

"Shhh! Don't be too loud! They might hear us! John, please stop with the pacing your driving me crazy. Just everyone be quiet..." They were trying to hold it together, to see which one of them might be a leader, but they were just so lost. And I'm sure that it had sunk in, the realization that they had abandoned their Lord. Talk about being ashamed. They were hiding in fear and shame.

Then Jesus just shows up. Jesus finds them anyway. Fear never prevents God from finding us. Hiding from God doesn't work. God walked in the garden long ago and called out for Adam and Eve and God searches for us still, but nothing can keep God from finding us, not locked doors or bushes or even thousands of miles. God finds the disciples just like God found Adam and Eve. And when Jesus finds the people who love him, he does two very important things.

First Jesus bestows peace. "Peace be with you," he says. It is the first thing he says before he even identifies himself. And the word in the Ancient Greek means harmony, the kind of relationship that we once had with God in the Garden. The risen Christ offers us peace. An end to fear. An end to hiding. Communion with God. Something that we can never find on our own. No, this peace is a gift from God and God alone.

And then Jesus shows them his scars. He doesn't say, "Guess what I did! I conquered death! Yay for me!!" No, in an unprecedented act of intimacy, Jesus lifts up his shirt and shows them his naked skin, and his wounds. He shows them the ugliest part of himself, where his flesh was torn in his hands and his side. And that is how they recognize him. By his scars.

Do you want to find peace? Do you want to find love? Then stop trying to show everyone that you have it all together. Show each other your wounds. Show them. Here is where I have been hurt. Here is how I suffer. That is how love is born. Love is born when fear and shame are overcome by the truth. That we are wounded creatures who cannot seem to get it right in this life, who kill our Lord and run away in fear. But God loves us anyway. And we should have never run. Not in Eden, not at the cross, not in the upper room. You can't run from God anyway. 

What is one of the best ways to run from God? Speed up your life. Make yourself so busy that you are always running. Who has time for scars when you are on the run, when running becomes the only way that you know how to be? Our business is born of our shame that we haven't yet done enough and it is nothing more than Adam and Eve hiding again.

I challenge you to reveal your scars to one another. At least here, in church, you should be able to nurture a relationship with someone with whom you can be truly honest, someone you can trust. If you do not have someone here who has earned your trust in that way, then you have not fully experienced church. (And your spouse doesn't count!) And even more importantly, are you the kind of person who others feel that they can be vulnerable with? When you go out on the street, at work, at the bank, do people feel that they can reveal their true selves to you? 

I pray that one day, you and I will stop running and trying to intimidate each other. And when we stop running, when we finally have the courage to stop hiding from one another and from God, then we can show each other our scars.  And the Risen Lord will be with us.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Seeing Something New- An Easter Sermon

There is an Easter egg hunt evolution going on here today. Last week, the Sunday school teachers told me to announce that the Easter egg hunt would be only available for kids ages seven and under. So big kids were out. After all, they are so fast that they steal all the eggs. We have tried to have staggered starts, letting the little ones get a few minutes alone before the big kids jump in, but it always seems to result in some kids having tons of eggs and others having only a few. So we just told the older kids that their time was up.

Well, this went over like a lead balloon. Nobody wants to be told that they are too old to hunt Easter eggs. I thought we might have a rebellion on our hands. But then a very gifted teacher came up with something new and unexpected.

She developed a new kind of egg hunt. The old fashioned competitive, find-all-the-eggs-you-can-in-a-short-time-before-everything-is-gone method will still be used on the young ones. But there is something new for the older kids, ages 8-11. They are going to hunt for eggs that contain pieces of a treasure map. They must work together to put the pieces in the right order to form the map that will lead them to the key which unlocks a treasure. And there will be enough chocolate for everybody.

No one likes change. But I think this Easter Egg hunt 2.0 is even better. Instead of being competitive, it is community building. And everybody gets chocolate!

All that Mary Magdalene wanted was for things to go back, back to the way that they were. Jesus had made her well, you know.  Mary had been lost. She had demons, these things that she could not see and did not understand. We don't know what they were: seizures, voices, hurting herself...she was lost and alone. And then Jesus came and he made everything right. He healed her and from that moment on, she would not leave his side. She followed him everywhere. She fed him and helped in any way she could. She did not leave even when they made Jesus carry a cross, even when they hung him up to die. She did not leave even when they took his body down and laid it in a tomb. Where else could she go?

All Mary wanted was to go back to the way things were, when she was with him, when she could cook for him and follow him everywhere, when she was healthy  and well because he was near. She just wanted her life back, her life with Jesus, the way things were.

That's what we want. We all want our lives to be the way they once were, or at least the way that we imagine they were. We want the same in heaven too. We want it to be like our best memories of home, with our loved ones and friends, like the best party we went to, like the best day we had. We want the best things from our past. It's all that we can imagine, the way things once were. Who could ask for anything more than that?

When Mary knew that Jesus was dead, she still couldn't stay away. So in the very early hours of the morning, as soon as the Sabbath was as over, Mary went to the tomb. She just wanted to stay close to him. It was all she knew. She couldn't stay away. And when she saw the dark tomb and his body gone, her grief rushed in on her and she began to weep. Everything had fallen apart. They had even taken his body! There was nothing to hold onto.

And then Jesus comes. Mary looks up and there is this man standing there. She doesn't know who he is. She doesn't recognize her Lord. She doesn't recognize the man that she had served and followed for years. I think that this is very important. Mary wanted things to go back to the way that they were. Her longing for what was prevented her from seeing what was right in front of her. Mary couldn't recognize the new way that Jesus came. Jesus looked different. Jesus was different.

All over the world, Christianity is changing. Christians are dying in the Middle East, being pushed from their homes. Churches are being desecrated. I watched this past week as a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop cried bitterly on 60 Minutes. He had be forced from his town when ISIS invaded. He had just five minutes to leave a church built in the early years of Christianity. The church held hundreds of ancient manuscripts -- some dating from the first century.  He grabbed just five of them and fled, leaving the rest of them, and his beloved church, to be defiled and destroyed. In Europe, churches are falling apart for another reason. Fewer and fewer people are going to church. They are empty, becoming museums, marketplaces, nightclubs, luxury apartments. What is happening to us?


All I want is for things to go back to the way they were. I want every Sunday to look like today, full and flowering. Full of bright young faces, worshipping God together. I want things to be the way that they were when churches were full every Sunday and everyone said prayers at night before bed.

And whenever I struggle in life, I think back to the way things were. I want my 20 year old body, my kids being young and so cute. I want my old house that I loved and I want to see my father-in-law again. 

But at the core of what we believe is this mystery called the resurrection. Resurrection does not mean returning to something the way it was. Resurrection is something entirely new. We believe that when we die, we are born into a new life.  And this new life happens when our physical bodies die, but it can also happen in this life. Jesus told his disciples over and over again that the kingdom of God was all around them. It's all around you too. But you have to learn to hunt for it, to seek it out and to find it.

        When Jesus came to Mary in the resurrected form, she could not recognize him. He looked different. He looked so different that later on some of his disciples would spend the entire afternoon with him talking and walking and not realize that it is him. All of his friends wanted things to go back to the way they were before and it made them blind to what God was doing. If you are looking to repeat the past, the resurrection will pass you by.

Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that we will see our loved ones in heaven, that the best of our lives here will be with us there, just as Jesus came back to the people he loved, but our loved ones will be so much more than what we remember them to be. And we will be so much more. Life will be so much more! 

And we are not just talking about heaven. The resurrection is something that we can access now. Jesus is very clear that the kingdom of God is near to you. So we must open our eyes. God is going to do new things in your life, if only you can see them. We are so busy that we don't even know how to see God's work in the world anymore. And yet,  Americans are hungry for meaning. We are running around, busier than we have ever been before, almost frantic with busyness, and we are hungry for meaning. Books on spirituality and meaning are flying off the shelves. We are aware that there is a certain lack of depth in our fast-forward lives. 

So this Easter, I want you to go on an Easter hunt. I don't want you to look for candy. Look for God. Look for ways that God is giving you new life. Look for a new thing. Jesus stands right in front of you, inviting you to see him if you have the courage to slow down and hunt for him. I know that it is scary, this ever-changing world of technology and moving parts. But he is here. All you have to do is look.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Washing

Jesus washed the disciples feet. He washed Judas' feet and he knew that Judas was going to betray him. He washed the feet of the man who would hand him over to endure the worst pain imaginable and to die. He took Judas' feet in his hands and washed the dirt away.

To forgive someone after they have hurt you is hard enough. What if you were to forgive them for everything that they could do in the future? There is a point in all of our lives when we realize that the ones we love will never be the people that we need them to be. They will always be flawed. They will eventually hurt us, whether they wish to or not. Jesus washed the feet of his betrayer, knowing that he would hand Jesus over to death. Now that is forgiveness!

Ben Clance, our deacon, goes into the prisons and washes the feet of men on death row. These are men that have performed horrific acts of violence. They are about to die and right before they are to be executed, here comes this man, this old deacon, who kneels down and washes their feet. I see your dirt, he says. I am holding the smelliest, dirtiest part of you. And I wipe it clean. Your filth cannot repulse me. I will never stop serving you.

Gods love is not like human love. It does not go away when we betray. God does not need us to love Him back. No, God loves us despite our selves.  God washes our dirty feet. Even before we betray Jesus. Even before we betray one another. Even then.

The Absence of God

My friend Brad was in Seminary when his four-year-old daughter came down with leukemia. They took her to the very best doctors. The Seminary raised money and brought food to their apartment. Brad took a semester off so he could be with her in the hospital every day while his wife worked. But his daughter, Lydia, got weaker and weaker.

He begged God to heal her, to let her stay with them, to be able to watch her grow up. And sometimes, in the hospital, she would look at him with her big blue eyes and say, "Daddy, I'm scared." And he would say, "I'm here, baby. I will always be here."

They talked a lot about Jesus and how much Jesus loved her. And on the day that little Lydia died, she told her dad that she loved him. "I love you, Dadddy," she said.  And then, she just closed her eyes. Brad never saw her beautiful blue eyes again.

After the funeral was over, Brad had to go back to Seminary, but he couldn't. He just couldn't. God was nowhere to be found. All of his life, he had felt the presence of God. All of his life he had believed in the power of prayer. And now, there was nothing. Just nothing. He felt nothing. God was just gone. When his little girls life slipped away, God seemed to slip away with her and, after that, there was just nothing but an empty void. Brad was alone.

In the gospel of Mark, the Passion narrative takes up a full third of the gospel. Jesus does so much in the first two thirds of the gospel. He moves from place to place, he heals, he teaches. He is surrounded by crowds. But once Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it is as if everything slows way down. The gospel writer goes into slow motion. Every step is described, every place, every word. And Jesus just gets quieter and quieter as his life draws to a close.

 Have you ever noticed that the story of what happens to Jesus in the last week of his life is one big process of abandonment? Jesus starts off surrounded by well-wishers. Everyone hopes that he will be the new King. Everyone is cheering for him, waving palms, shouting Hosanna. And then, slowly, inch by inch, he is left alone. The crowds disperse and his friends and disciples remain for a last meal together. Then Judas leaves to betray him. After dinner, just a few of the disciples go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. And they cannot stay awake with him. Jesus is left alone. He is afraid. He talks to God but God does not answer or speak as God has spoken earlier in the gospel. And then, Jesus is captured and his friends all desert him. He is punished alone, whipped alone, interrogated alone. And he speaks less and less. Finally, even his clothing is stripped away and Jesus hangs on the cross naked and completely alone. In his final words, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 

Jesus felt abandoned by God. He thought that God had left him. He was in pain and totally alone. Or was he?

When we go through our darkest moments, it is easy to think that God has abandoned us, or that God simply doesn't exist. It is easy to despair. We don't understand why we have to suffer and perhaps we never will. But God never leaves us. That is what the cross is all about. Even when things seem beyond repair and we are totally alone in the darkness, God is there. In the very pit of despair, the cross is there.

And the truth is that our feelings of God's presence are just that, feelings. God does not come and go from us so much as we are open at times to God while at other times we cannot see or sense God's presence. Jesus thought that God had abandoned him. Jesus was afraid and he thought he was alone, but that was just when God was doing His best work.

Sometimes our greatest struggles, the times when we suffer the most and can't figure out why, those are the times when our growth is greatest, when God is even more present, where something incredible and eternal happens. Those are our times of the cross.

I don't think that God willed for Jesus to die and I don't think God wants us to suffer. After all, God made us for Eden. But I do think that God is with us , even in our darkest hour, and that God never left His Son. God never leaves you, no matter how you feel.

Brad no longer wanted to become a priest. God had taken his daughter. God had left when she died. And the worst part was that she never got to go to her prom, fall in love, wear her wedding dress. These thoughts tormented him. He could not get out of bed. 

Then one night, Brad had a dream. Jesus came and took his daughters hand and together they flew through life, and she got to experience everything, her first dance, her first kiss, having children, everything. And Brad knew that Christ was with her now and had never left her. Brad knew that God would do even greater things with her new life.

Why does God abandon us? Why do we feel so alone? The pain of this world can slice you right open, cause you to stumble, cause even Jesus to wonder why God was gone, but God never leaves us. Never. No matter what we feel.

And when you feel alone, remember that Jesus once felt that way too. Remember, and wait for the dawn.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Happiness Illness

Did you know that March 20th is International Happiness Day? I don't know who invented the holiday, maybe Hallmark card? It's certainly not on the list of holy days in any Christian calendar that I've ever seen. But how perfect for us Americans. Another day in the pursuit of happiness. How about buy-more-stuff day? Or Feel-good day? Or stuff-yourself-silly day? Here is a day dedicated not to any role model or meaningful issue but simply to the idea that you should be happy. Oh, and by the way, what do you do on international happiness day if you are grieving or sad or just in a bad mood? I guess that you should just crawl back in bed and pray for tomorrow?

The truth is that we have become a bit ill in our consumerist world. We have fallen prey to the myth that to be happy is the greatest goal in life. And even more than that, we have come to believe that you can buy happiness, or exercise it onto you somehow, or vacation into it. By golly, if you look good and you're beautiful then you will be happy! And worst of all, if by some reason all of this self-absorption and feelings-centered reasoning still leaves you moody, the implication is that there is something wrong with you. You should be happy! Our ads scream. MAKE YOURSELF HAPPY!! We have become plagued by The Happiness Illness.

Jesus said these words two thousand years ago. Up until this week, I ran away from these words because I didn't really understand them. He said, "those who love their life lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." 

We are supposed to hate our lives? That just never sounded right to me. Our lives can be frustrating and sad and full of pain but to HATE them? Could that really be what Jesus meant when God created us and gave us life? Why would God want us to hate what he had made? It made no sense to me.

So I spent some time studying the Ancient Greek of the gospels. The word Jesus used is m-i-s-e-o. It is a word whose meaning is to hate in the sense of renouncing, to give up, to hand over.

Renounce. Let go. Reject...We are supposed to renounce our lives.  And then Jesus is very specific by including three key words IN THIS WORLD. You are supposed to renounce or give up your life IN THIS WORLD and live for heaven, live for God, live for the life for the real deal.

Have you ever thought about the symbol of our faith? A cross. They are everywhere in our world, on top of buildings and on graveyard stones, engraved in rings or suspended on a chain around a persons neck. The cross is the ultimate symbol of Christianty. How strange that a symbol of torture would embody a faith...the symbols of other religions are all more upbeat- a six-pointed Star of David, the crescent moon of Islam, a lotus blossom for Buddhism. And for us--an instrument of execution.

Would you put a firing squad on your business card? Wear a tiny electric chair around your neck? Suspend a gold hangman noose on your wall?  Don't forget what a cross really is. It is a symbol of death.

The cross reminds us of what Jesus is talking about here. That we must be willing to die to ourselves, that our lives are not first and foremost about making ourselves happy.

My son Luke got his drivers license on Friday. And I am a nervous wreck. I want to hold onto him. I don't want him hurtling down the highway at 60 miles an hour. I don't want him to risk his life. I want him home. But he is going to drive. And I have to let go.

And if I don't let go and give him the freedom, he will not grow into the man that God wants him to be. I will crush him. I cannot hold onto his life any more than I can hold onto mine. I want him safe, I want him happy. But I must let him go and renounce all my motherly instincts, send him him out onto the highway of life.

When you wonder what to do with your life, most of us ask first and foremost if this thing will make us happy. Luke is already thinking about college about a career and people ask him all the time, "what do you want to do?" Not "what is God asking of you" but "what would make you happy?" No wonder our young people don't know what to do with their lives. We are asking them to pursue happiness and no one can make themselves happy. 

What if we asked, first off, how can I serve God? How can I renounce my own pleasure and give it away instead? What does God ask of me? Where does the world need me?

Brad Dowling, neurofibromatosis...

Kimberly Ham, a reporter, did all kinds of research on how to make yourself happy. And guess what she found? It had nothing to do with your looks, your health, your money, or even your family situation. The number one thing that makes you happy

GIVING. Do you mean doing something for someone else? Yes. The best way to make yourself happy is to try to make someone else happy. How ironic. How paradoxical.

In other words, you have to give up your life if you want to really live. You have to let go of making yourself happy and give your life away to be happy. Give your money. Give your time. Give yourself to things not because they will make you happy but because God needs you.  The goal of your life cannot be your own gratification, that is a recipe for disaster. No, you must lose your life for God, give it all to God. 

God really wants your help in this crazy, broken world. And it is the forces of darkness that distract us into thinking we can't do anything unless it makes us happy. Was Jesus always happy? Most of the time he was totally exhausted, actually. He fell asleep on boats and climbed mountains to get some peace. And I'm darned sure that he was not happy on the cross but that was the best thing that he ever did!

Things are changing. People are going to church now when it is convenient, just enough to make themselves not feel guilty, when they are not doing something like vacations and hobbies and sports and eating out. One lady came up to me on Christmas Eve in the receiving line and proudly announced, "I come here every year!" 

It is easy to go to church for the purpose of making yourself happy. Did the sermon feed me? Did I feel moved? Was the music good? But none of these are the reasons to come to church. Christians have been going to church on the morning of the first day of the week for thousands of years because it is a concrete way of saying to God, "My life belongs to you. I put you first. I will worship you in the first hours of the first day of the week. I DIE to self and LIVE for you!"

I want you to combat The Happiness Illness. Don't buy into the myth. Your happiness is not the most important thing in the word. There is something so much more important and so much more meaningful and that is your salvation, your heart's growth, the journey of your soul.

The crowds have poured downtown for these basketball games. It is awesome. I wish people would pour into church that way. I wish our problems had to do with crowding and people screaming and lack of parking. What if we came to church with the same enthusiasm that we come to a game? Cheering for GOD!

You know, the evangelicals have something with that altar call. It gives people the invitation to hand themselves over to Christ, again and again and again. To hand your life over, hand over your happiness. You don't need to worry about your mood anymore. It is just not that important.

I told my evangelical friend something recently that I truly believe. We at the cathedral, we do an altar call every week. And everyone comes up. Everyone!

So when you walk forward to receive Christ's body and blood, hand over your very self. No more worry about the mindless chasing of happiness. No more cheering for the wrong team. Fight the Happiness Illness. Your first priority is no longer your own pleasure. Give yourself over to the mystery of the cross.